Finally, the last post in this blog series has arrived! Since returning from Iowa in March, I have been frantically juggling three major composition projects, two major recitals/performances, and the mundane busywork of music school. But UM's last day of finals was last week, so I have time now to write about the final step in the premiere process: rehearsals!
When I first sent Robert McConnell the parts and score to The Bells, there was no recording in existence for him to listen to as he looked over the score, except the lousy MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) file that Finale synthesises for me. And lousy is generous. It is often so bad that people prefer to listen to nothing instead of MIDI. This means that, unlike a piece like Beethoven 5 or La Mer, any standard repertoire, where you can listen to 50 different recordings and begin to understand the soul of the piece, Bob had no resource to understand the score, except his musical intuition, and me. We talked together quite a bit before the orchestra ever saw the music, discussing potential problem areas and general phrasing/shaping ideas.
But our theories only go so far, and when the music finally gets on the players' stands, many things get completely rethought. After the first rehearsal, Bob sent me recordings, and we talked over them extensively, discussing anything he or I wasn't happy with, and figuring out what needed to be addressed early on and what could wait until I was actually in the room. This was the basic gameplan for the first rehearsals: Record, Listen, Discuss. We talked about me Skyping in at one point, but decided there was too much room for technical issues to be a good use of time.
Once I was in Iowa, the process changed drastically. I had a score for the piece, and as the orchestra would rehearse, I would sit in the back of the hall, where the sound was best, and take notes. I would mark things that were too loud or soft for the balance I wanted, places where the style was wrong (i.e. too sharp, or too smooth), and places where I wanted to change what had been written originally. This last category was the smallest, as it is a nightmare for the orchestra if I change everything once they have the music and are practicing, but some things could be changed easily.
During pauses in the rehearsal, I would be able to make a few comments. Of course there were many things that I wanted to address, even during the dress rehearsal, but in consideration of everyone's time, it was important to prioritize. Also, orchestra ettiquite demands that the conductor always be in change, so I couldn't just derail the rehearsal to change something I wanted. When they had finished a section, if I had comments, I would call out "Hey, Bob!" and talk directly to him "The trombones are too loud at letter F" rather than to the players. This way he could implement my comments however he wanted. It may seem like a roundabout way of addresing a simple issue, but it maintains a stable rehearsal dynamic that helps everyone feel comfortable.
After each rehearsal, Bob and I would sit down and talk through the entire score, and during this time I could address everything I wanted, and we would discuss whether or not to mention them or let the players deal with them on their own, as well as compromising on many sections where we had different views. I would keep a list of things that were not worth spending rehearsal time on, and talk to individual players before or after rehearsals about them.
Another big part of the rehearsal process was experimentation. Mostly for percussion instruments, but also occasionally for strings or brass. For example, the piece calls for two large, unpitched bells, and I experimented for hours with the percussionists to come up with a sound I liked. Eventually, we ended up using two different lengths of signpost, hung from a frame and struck with a variety of hammers. Also, I asked for an anvil at the end of the third movement (Brazen Bells), and as anvils typically weigh a few hundred pounds, a substitute was necessary. We settled on a motorcycle brake drum, struck with a ten-pound hammer right on the axle mount. Experiments like this didn't usually happen during rehearsal, except for the final choice. With the anvil, we had narrowed our options down to two different objects, and we ran the section of music where the anvil comes in twice, once with each object, to figure out which worked best.
By the end of the dress rehearsal, everyone (the orchestra, Bob, and I) felt comfortable with the music. This made for a very confident and moving first performance. But the rehearsal process was very important in determining the success of the first concert; if I had demanded too much, or if Bob was too unclear on his interpretation of the music, it could have trainwrecked very easily. Having a good balance of addressing issues and giving compliments was important, and talking through EVERYTHING with Bob was also crucial to a smooth rehearsal flow.
As this is the final post in the SEISO Residency series, I think it is fitting to close with a recording of The Bells. Here is the recording of Movement 2, Silver Bells, recorded in the Iowa Weslyan Chapel Auditorium on Sunday, March 19th.
Today's post is about every composer's worst nightmare: EDITING!
Actually figuring out what notes and rhythms are in a piece of music is only half the work. As a composer, I can figure out pretty quickly what I want my music to sound like, and write that down. But getting it from the full score (with all the instruments together) to each player-s individual part is a daunting and thankless process. Most players don't even notice if a part is edited well; they just notice if it is edited poorly.
The first step in the editing process is proofing the full score. Because the instruments on each staff have large ranges, sometimes the space between staves must be adjusted to make sure that notes and markings don't overlap, which makes a score messy and hard to read. Each page needs a fairly even amount of measures; if one page has two measures on it and the next has 20, this can be very confusing to a conductor. Also, going through the full score at the beginning helps to catch typos before they become hard to fix. Many typos can be caught early in the process, saving a lot of work later.
The next step is creating a "parts score", which I can use to make the notation software extract each individual line. This is necessary because, in a full score or conductor score, things like tempo markings and rehearsal letters only appear above two or three staves, but they need to appear on each part. Also, fonts on a conductor score are much bigger than on parts, as the conductor score is smaller and farther away. Finally, on a conductor score, instruments are "grouped" together and each group is given a name (i.e. Clarinets) and the parts are simply given numbers (1, 2, 3) to eliminate clutter on the score. But each part needs the full instrument name (Clarinet 1, Clarinet 2, Clarinet 3) on the part, so the parts score has to display all of the names for each staff.
Once the parts score is created, changing notes becomes more difficult. With any score, the more you edit it, the more mistakes you find. But once you have two scores, and eventually two scores and a set of parts, you have to edit the same error two or three times. It gets to be a lot to keep track of.
The next step in the process is extracting and editing the parts. There are several important reasons for editing each part. First of all, in an orchestra, most parts are not doubled. There is only one player reading Flute 1. This measn that each part REQUIRES adequate time at the end of each page to turn the page without missing notes. The same is true of strings, as even though there are multiple players per part, the sound is noticeably thinner if half the players have to stop playing to turn a page. So creating good page turns is most of the work when editing parts. Usually this means moving staves from page to page to make sure that there are resta at the end of a page. Sometimes, a page is left entirely blank if there are no good rests for a few pages on either side. All of this is very tedious work, but pays off in smooth and productive rehearsals.
The last step in the first "round" of editing is actually proofing the notes and markings to make sure there are no collissions. It is during this stage that most of the initial typos are found and corrected in the part, the part score, and the full score. Each page of each part must be labelled with the instrument name and page, and in percussion parts, all instrument changes must be clearly marked, and even mallet choices marked in where necessary, to save the player the time involved in figuring out which type of mallet to use.
Once this is done, a final run-through of the score often helps to catch even more typos and collissions of markings that didn't get caught earlier, as it takes days to edit the parts and this gives me a frresh perspective on the score. It's the same basic principle as doing a word-search sideways: the fresh perspective helps you notice things you didn't notice before.
This process took about two weeks for the symphony, and I have only finished the first round. As the rehearsal process gets underway, more and more typos will surface, and get corrected, and with every subsequent performance (if there are any) more mistakes will show themselves. But the feeling of releif when I finally click the "Send" button on the email with all of the parts and score PDFs for the orchestra is worth all of the drudgery.
So now the rehearsl process will be getting underway! The next post will probably revisit some of the earlier movements that I didn't get into as much detail with, while explaining just what happens in the first rehearsal of a brand-new composition. Until then, happy composing!
Well, as any musician knows, December often descends into chaos, with numerous gigs, concerts, trips, and of course finals. So it was virtually impossible to get much done before school let out. I told myself I would buckle down and get to work as soon as break was over, but that didn't happen, partly because of laziness, and partly because of Christmas and family vacation...
Anyway, by January 1 I still hadn't done much at all on either the second or the third movement, so I blocked of this last week as my frantically-try-to-finish-a-movement week. And I surpassed even my expectations by finishing BOTH the second and the third movements!
Movement Two is a lush, melodic movement, with Romantic harmonies and a calm mood. I had a melodic fragment I liked, and basically used it for all of the development sections, and expanded it into a full melody for the thematic sections. I will dig into this movement more once the rehearsal process starts, sometime in February, and explain how it is put together. But this one only took two days to write, from beginning to end.
Movement Three was a bit trickier, partly because it is fast and frenzied (much like I have been lately), and partly because there is not really a melody, so there had to be several interesting motives that could interact with eachother to give interest to the movement. Again, I will get into detail later, but the third movement is harsh, abrasive, and terrifying, with loud dissonances and driving rhythms. It took me the rest of the week to finish this one, partly because I had to sit at the piano and work out every measure, every run, every rhythm to keep it from getting stagnant.
But everything is done, the score is finished, and I can finally take a break and admire my work...a 32-minute symphony, for full orchestra, finished in a total of about 5 months. Time for dessert!
Well, it's been far too long since I've blogged about the process of the commission. Honestly, part of the reason is that there hasn't been much to blog about. After I came up with those two big chunks of the fourth movement, I hit a bit of a compositional brick wall, and also had a lot of schoolwork on my plate for the past month or so, so I had very little time to compose. However, I managed over the course of that month or so to add a bit to the second large section, and got all the way to the big, really declamatory climax of the movement. Still, this was precious little to show for an entire month, especially with the deadline getting closer and closer.
So this week, I decided that I needed the whole movement done. I went through my drafts and found all of the material I had recorded for the opening of the movement (from the end of the first chunk to the beginning of the second) and spent Monday working with those. I knew from the start how I wanted the opening to progress, on a large scale. It was just figuring out details. Basically it looks like this:
Since I had almost a half-hour worth of existing recordings for this section alone, I was able to come up with the actual notes to use fairly quickly. I figured most of it out on the piano first, and then put it into the computer and orchestrated each section as I went along.
Then, I worked on the section after the big climax. Not the one in the picture above, that one isn't even really a climax, as the music continues immediately with the same thematic material. This one is more of an anti-climax. But the climax at the end of the second chunck was a real climax, and I felt like I needed to basically just bring the excitement down and end the movement after that one. Especially since this is the last movement of the symphony, I wanted to really take some time to allow the audience to calm down, relax, get comfortable with the emotions the final movement deals with (they're pretty heavy, let me tell you), before bringing things to a conclusion. There is a large portion of this fade-out where I decided to just sit on a few chords, actually just a few notes, and allow the music to unfold slowy from them and then fold back into them. This creates kind of a hypnotic wash of sound that really makes the ending stand out from the rest of the movement.
I finished the movement this afternoon, and now I need to start work on the second and third in earnest. I will try to blog more often, especially now that I forsee working prettymuch nonstop on these movements. I will also try to dissect a few spots in the fourth movement soon, but I really want to keep this one close to my chest, as I want it to have its full impact at the concert. Anyway, I'll be back soon with more music-y stuff, and probably more excuses on why I haven't gotten as much done as I should...until then, happy music-making!
THE FIRST MOVEMENT IS FINISHED! I am so happy to have something tangible to show for progress. The next movement in the works is movement 4. This movement is dark, ominous, relentless. I have a few ideas specifically, but most of what I am working with right now is a general idea of emotions and trajectory on a large scale. I have two sections coming together now, however.
One, the biggest, is the "heart" of the movement. It begins with a pedal note which is sustained for a long time, a C. This is the V in the key of F, which predominates the first half of the movement. Above this pedal, the celesta and strings play short phrases from the Requiem Aeternum chant, reharmonized to sound mournful and hopeless. These phrases stretch out more and more, eventually dwindling to just two notes. This is followed by a long pause, allowing the seriousness of the mood to be felt clearly.
Then, the music unflolds in an increasing torrent of anguish, which builds to a painful climax, and diminishes again. A sweeping brass choir melody carries this section along. I think that after this the music will turn to a more hopeful mood, but I am not sure exactly when and how. But I am very happy with this section. I will break down the orchestration in a later post.
The other section coming together is the beginning. The movement begins with a pulsing rhythm in the percussion, reminiscent to me of a heartbeat, but also symbolizing the march of time and death. Above this, horns, trombones, and low woodwinds play an eerie, sorrowful melody, which will eventually swell and attempt to break free of the pulsing heartbeat, and reach a moment of huge tension which will usher in the soft Requiem section.
Hopefully by next week I will be able to post score samples and MIDI clips, but until then, I'd better get to work!
Today, I thought I would go through the complete process of composing and orchestrating a few measures of the first movement.
This chunk is from right before the climactic entrance of the theme, near the end of the movement. Originally, the theme was going to have D as it's tone center, but as I played around with some chord progressions to support it, I came up with one that had a continuously descending bass line that I really liked. The only problem was that it put the double basses down below the range of most basses. So I decided to transpose the whole section to F, which meant this transition had to modulate from D to F without being too obvious, the entire movement until this point had D as it's tonal center, and a keychange so close to the end wouldn't make any sense unless it came back to D. Which I won't. (More on that in another post.) So it has to be hidden enough that it doesn't jump out to the ear.
First, I played around with some ideas on the piano, and came up with this little motive I liked:
This would work well as a means to unify the section and make the transition more smooth. As it went on, I changed it a little, and figured out about 12 measures of it. The first two iterations of the idea above have an A sounded in the bass instruments right before them (where that quarter rest is, right before the notes). A is the note that pulls the most strongly to D, which is not where I want to go. So the next two iterations have a C in the bass. This pulls very strongly to F, but would be too obvious. So I started improvising.
This is a little rough, but you can hear how some ideas stuck and some were thrown out. As I played, I started to get a better feel for the way I wanted the harmonies to flow. After these two takes, I was pretty sure I liked the first few measures, so from then on I started with the next problem spot.
After this one, I was pretty sure of what the harmony would be for the next few measures, so I started from the next trouble spot. Generally, this is the way I improvise. I go through over and over, focusing on areas that are awkward or not what I want, until I begin to get some sense of a progression that works well.
You can hear how there are a few rhythmic and melodic ideas that carry over through all of these takes, even though some chords and ideas don't. Usually, these are the ones that make it onto my computer.
Here, I have pretty much nailed down the harmony, and am just fooling around with the last few measures before that really solid C chord, which leads to F and the melody.
At this point, I was ready to start writing all of this out. Now, when I go to transfer the ideas from my head (or iPad) to the notation software, I am still thinking critically about them, and so things change even as I write stuff down. The biggest thing I changed at first was rhythm. I wanted the rhythm to be exciting, and not too stable. So every time there was a repetition of melodic ideas, the rhythm would change.
That's the barebones fanfare. It needs embellishment, right? I started with the woodwinds and strings.
Next, the percussion, mostly mallets, doing rhythmic patterns and hits (like at the beginning of the movement; remember the last post?) along with harp and celesta, and some more moving stuff in the brass parts to make things exciting. In particular, trumpets 1 and 2 have a soaring line at the beginning, and trumpets 3 and 4 double the bells later on.
This fit together well, except that it was too cluttered. Every person was playing all the time. This doesn't make for a good thing in several ways. For one, there is no clarity of timbre. You can't tell whether the trumpets or the horns have the most interesting part, and the woodwinds just get on your nerves after a while. And this makes a piece lose momentum. For another, it makes the players frustrated, as they have to blend with eachother all the time, and often feel that their part is lost in the wash of sound. Also, it is very tiring on the ear to hear loud tutti sections where everyone plays everything.
So, I decided to cut out a few parts. First, I took the woodwinds out of the first measures where they had runs. I gave the runs to the horns instead. This did two things. First, it allowed the brass section to really assert itself before becoming part of the larger texture, and let the horns really show off their brilliant upper range. Second, it allowed me to hold the shrill woodwind parts in reserve for later, when there was more tension. This gave the section more momentum. Also, I took out the flowery trumpet lines that doubled the mallet parts. These were low in the trumpet range, and quite tricky, but wouldn't be heard anyway, since there was so much going on. This allowed me to split the brass section into brighter and darker instrument sounds (trumpets/trombones vs. horns), and mix and match them in a more interesting way. The result?
Well, there you go. A somewhat disjointed, unneccesarily verbose explanation of how I came up with the transition from D to F leading into the main theme. Next week, I'll talk about the form of the first movement as a whole, and how that relates to the entire symphony. Farewell until then!
Since I last posted an update, things have been moving very quickly. I started drafting some vague ideas for the first movement based on my piano improvisation. Typically, when I write a piece, about one-third of the process is just sitting at the piano and improvising. From this come many of the intergral motifs in any given piece, and also a clear concept of the overal trajectory of the work, which helps me when I go to write things out. In this case, I drafted a bit, on a Finale document with four blank staves. It looked kind of like this:
As I drafted it, I envisioned which instruments would play each part, more or less. Piccolos on the top line. Flutes on lines 2 and 3. Mallet Percussion on line 4. But as I continued to mull things over, I realized that the poening ideas I had drafted were getting way too exciting too quickly. So I started a draft of the orchestra score, starting like this:
Here, one note from the first strike of the mallet instruments, harp, and celesta is sustained by piccolo, which dies into the sound of the same note played by the violins, with a harmonic. This extremely thin texture thickens gradually, as you can see, and it takes about a minute to get to the area on the orchestra score that corresponds to the original draft image above. Basically, the score unfolds based on a gradually thickening cluster of notes.
Throughout this entire section, the metallic percussion and keyboards continue to strike those ringing chords, sometimes at the entrance of a new instrument or tone, and sometimes randomly. After the final cluster is established, the tempo picks up and a steady tactus is established. I say tactus because the pulse changes constantly, so you can never predict the accented beats, but the underlying rhythmic constructs remain more or less constant.
Out of this section come some melodic ideas, starting in horns and muted trumpets, and blossoming into the full brass section.
The material is going to weave together to form this melody. (This is from my sketch book, so it is kind of hard to read...)
So, as of now, I have a pretty clear concept of what the first movement is going to look like. As I finish up mapping out the ideas, I will be going back over the orchestration and changing some details, which will result in a rather interesting post, I hope. Until then, back to writing!
Well, here we go!
Since my last post, I haven't done much on the commission. A lot of thinking, and sketching a few melodies. One of which I really liked, but wasn't sure if it would fit with the rest of the piece. Then again, I wasn't sure what "the rest of the piece" would be like.
Then, earlier this week, while I was looking for a good way to word a title for a completely unrelated project, I stumbled upon a poem by Edgar Allan Poe: The Bells.
Sometimes inspiration is already inside you when you start a new project. Sometimes you know already exactly what you need to write. But sometimes you accept a project before the music is there, in your head, and you have to go finding inspiration to try and get the music to surface. That's what the last month or so has been. And I think that, just maybe, I have found the spark that fires up my music.
As I read through the poem, it stirred emotions inside of me that resonated so strongly that they will just jump out of the music I write, almost unconsciously. The first stanza is about sleigh bells (on a cold, invigorating winter day), the second is about wedding bells, the third is about alarm bells (how can that not inspire music?), and the last is about funeral bells.
So, at this point, the commission looks like this in my mind: Four movements. One for each stanza. Using lots of metallic percussion. Definitely E flat clarinet, because of the third movement. A bunch of French horns, because of the nobility second and the panic of the third movement. Two piccolos, because of the first movement. A theme, or rhythmic motif, that runs through all of the movements, tying them together without jumping out, because the idea will morph in each successive movement to fit the new emotional palette. Pretty jumbled list of ideas. But I'll start to sort them out over the next few weeks, and then you will hear from me again!
But for now, I've got work to do...
That's true, right there. Usually when something falls through, it's only to make way for something better. (That's the way God works in my life.)
Well, to make a long story short, both of my exciting summer projects fell through. Andrew, the flautist commissioning the concerto for March, is not going to be the artist in residence with SEISO. And I will not be going up to Massachusetts in August for FredBrass. I will be going to Orlando in November for the National Young Composers Challenge, which I have won for the fourth year in a row. Still, this has left my summer relatively free of work. But I have been given a new project. One more exciting than both of these put together.
I have agreed to be the Composer in Residence with the Southeast Iowa Symphony Orchestra for their 2016-17 season.
I will be flying out to Iowa in March for two weeks of outreach in schools, lectures, and working with the orchestra, and SEISO will premiere a new work for full orchestra in their Spring concerts to wrap up the residency. This opportunity combines all that I love about music and hope to do full-time in the future: composition, education, outreach, and collaboration. I am incredibly humbled and thankful for this chance to do what I love.
So, over the next months, you, my faithful readers, will get to follow along as I compose a new 20-30 minute piece for full orchestra. I am still figuring out exactly how this will work, but hopefully this will be an awesome experience for you as well as for me, as I try to give you a glimpse into the creative processes that are at work behind the scenes in the composition of a piece.
Now, off to composing!