Making changes

I’m looking over the piece I had left Wednesday, and there’s this one phrase that’s just a little unsatisfactory. I’ve repeated a figure once where it shouldn’t have been, I decide, and I take out a couple of notes, and try to make it sound like I want by changing a few more. It also has the advantage of giving the brass player more time to breathe, and in this kind of demanding piece, I think the player will appreciate it.

But it’s tiring. Finally, I settle on a phrase that instead of ending on a high note, goes down a sixth, the landing note is the leading note, and I think it’s a lot more elegant. I love how it leads to the next phrase, which starts on the tonic of B minor, so the melody drops a major seventh from the last note in one phrase to the first in the next.

Finishing another piece

I’ve reached kind of a benchmark for the solo piece I’m working on. Today I write in the poetry so that it’s visible to the performer right after the cover page, and right before the notes of music start. It’s my intention that the performer should read it out loud before performing the piece.

I know I’ve gotten the ending phrase at least mostly the way I like it. I think more about the dynamics in the piece and write in all my hairpins, sforzandos, pianos, pianissimos, fortes, fortissimos, etc. that needed to be added and I’m tweaking a note or two. I add in another little phrase to extend and hopefully improve that key modulation I was working on yesterday, and let it rest a little.

I’m going to take tomorrow off and hit it fresh again after the holiday to see if there are other things I want to tweak before calling it done.

The connection between improvisation and composition

One of my most influential teachers in college was Christian Asplund. He taught me many things, being my teacher for fourth semester theory, beginning composition, and then he was my mentor for my capstone project (the composition part of it, I actually had another one for the theatre production part of the project, Rodger Sorensen). He also taught Group for Experimental Music (GEM), in which I participated in its first year, and later on, I was able to be a singer in an opera he had written and directed.

He encouraged thinking outside of what we had experienced before, and the pieces we performed with GEM were sometimes full of improvisation, and other times they had part improvisation. Usually at least part of the piece was up for interpretation, and whereas this is typical for all music, there was definitely more than the usual amount of interpretation in those pieces. He writes pieces called “Comprovisations” which means they were kind of compositions with large elements of improv in them.

This kind of thinking really helped me think about my writing in a new way. I had already been writing music for several years when I met Dr Asplund, but all that improvising together helped me discover that all music longs for form. It doesn’t have to be the same form every time, and it doesn’t have to be consistent, but even in improv, you want to recognize that you are going from one part to the next, and the most satisfying improvisations will feature a “going back to the beginning” or something similar.

When I’m writing today on the piece for a solo instrument, I’m feeling much like I’m back in the room with my colleagues in GEM, and I’m writing phrase after phrase, tweaking the first idea a little each time to make it move forward, and into a key change by switching one accidental at a time, repeating it and adding another so that it feels inevitable when we return to the original key. It is such a satisfying moment when I can write the opening phrases in the original key again, and while I don’t know exactly where it will end, as I’m expecting another minute of the song, I’m happy to have gotten to where I am today.

Putting a bit of yourself in the music

Listening to Schostakovich’s Symphony 7 makes you think he’s writing about the war, and the threat of the KGB, but abstractly enough that it’s hard to pin him on it. It is one of the most emotionally charged pieces I have listened to, in particular that has no lyrics.

When I wrote the trombone quartet I will take care of you, I had put a lot of thought into the music drama that I based the songs on that turned into movements. They had characters, they had feelings, and there were problems they were trying to solve.

As I’m working on a piece today, I’m writing in what I feel like the desperate crying of grief after losing a loved one. I can only hope that those who hear it will recognize it, as I believe this can be cathartic. Most people get hit by grief or loss at some point in their lives, and music can be very soothing.

Audio files of my symphony

So for those who want to hear what a synthesized version of my symphony will sound like, here are some sound files. Let me know if your orchestra wants to play it!

As I’m still not sure whether the contact me form actually works, you can contact me over LinkedIn, Instagram, or Facebook.

Symphony #1 First movement
Second movement – Romance
Third movement – Un-even dance
Fourth movement

Are you jealous of what someone else has accomplished?

As I’m writing my book today, I confess that there have been a few times when I felt jealous of other composers having their original operas performed. But when it comes to Mozart or Puccini I just feel kind of intimidated by the sheer volume of their output.

I’m still reading James Clear’s Atomic habits, and the quote I stick with today is this: “What’s the difference between the best athletes and everyone else? What do the really successful people do that most don’t?” Mr Clear is interviewing an elite coach, who mentions factors you might expect: genetics, luck, talent. “But then he said something I wasn’t expecting: ‘At some point it comes down to who can handle the boredom of training every day, doing the same lifts over and over and over.'” (p. 233)

Expect it to get boring sometimes, and plan for it to be ok anyway. Just keep going.

I again failed to bring my notebook to the gym where I’m working today, so I decide to just start a new score for a string quartet that doesn’t require my notes from the other day. I’ll think more about what I want to do with the piece, but I’ve written in an opening phrase for the two violins, and I have some ideas of rhythms, melodies, harmonies expressed in just those few measures. As I talked about the other day, really successful music pretty much always features lots of repetition, lots of themes with variations, and some development of ideas. Creating an idea isn’t that hard, it’s the rest that is the craft.

Hoping next week I’ll be able to get some more time into the two pieces I now have open for editing, but at least I plan on showing up, even if it’s just for a little bit. If I can find the time and energy, I’d like to write some more poetry to feed my music.

A bad day is better than no day

I’m reading James Clear’s Atomic Habits. He talks about the importance of showing up, even when you don’t feel like it. You do it because it is a part of your identity, that you are a person that doesn’t miss (his example is workouts, but I’m applying it to writing music).

It’s been a day full of working on house chores, and I am looking at my list of things to do. I have a task called “Write music.” It does not quantify how much, because I know that these days come sometimes, when I feel like I don’t have much time, and maybe not a ton of ideas to write in the amount of time I can scrounge up anyway.

But I write in three phrases, and I consider it a non-zero day, a day which despite not yielding lots of new notes, has still been a day when I showed up to my computer. I opened my software notation program, and I wrote in some new notes. I put in a key change.

Next time I know I’ll need to add in more variations on the theme. It should be fun. But as I explained a few days ago, the piece came with a huge wave of grief attached to it, and it is kind of heavy working on it. I’ll go play some Bruch or Telemann or Hummel or maybe just Christmas tunes to brighten my spirit.

At what difficulty level to write a piece

I touched on this yesterday. First, you have to know what is difficult for a musician on the particular instrument you are writing for. You have to at least have an idea of the outer ranges of their ability, so you know what you’re getting into when you hand them your music to play.

For example, when Igor Stravinsky had The Rite of Spring premiered in 1912, the opening notes in the bassoon were usually not written for that instrument. From what I have heard, the idea was that it shouldn’t be so very pretty, or at least he couldn’t have expected that when he gave it to the orchestra. Bassoon players since that premiere have refined their skill, and often practice that solo for auditions, because if you can play that solo well, it means you have mastered the high range of the bassoon.

When I wrote Requiem last year, there is this part where the trumpet has really long notes. For a string player, a long note is not particularly difficult to play, but it is more challenging on the trumpet. Thankfully, Jason Bergman is a very skilled trumpet player, and he pulled it off very nicely.

I guess the trick with becoming really good at most things is to be able to make it look nearly effortless. So a piece can look and sound deceptively easy to play despite its difficulties, when you have a professional play it.

When I was working on the symphony, I was writing a sequence of notes for the contrabass that I hadn’t been writing before. It’s not that they were especially difficult, but I felt like I should show them to my contrabassist friend before settling on the bowings for them. Also, I know that bowings often get changed by the orchestra that is playing it. She reminded me of one thing that is difficult on the bass – multiple string crossings in rapid succession. Being a large instrument, and each note needing some time to start to resonate, really rapid notes can become muddled.

For a singer, I know a couple of things that make it difficult. Unusual interval skips can be challenging. Singing at the top of the register for an extended amount of time is also difficult, but in a different way. The unusual skips just means practice more to learn it. The extended high range tires out the voice, which shortens how long you can sing. I think these limitations are similar for most wind and brass players. From what I understand, a flute player might have a hard time getting it perfectly in tune as well, when you start hitting the max three or four notes in their register. Oh, and very long phrases have got to be divided. There is a limit to how long you can sing or play one note.

For a harp, having only seven pedals, which change the tuning for the entire harp, it is difficult to play lots of accidentals that are changing from one note to the next. You have to give them time to change the tuning. I haven’t tried to push it too much with my harp parts yet, just because it’s easier to write something that is “safe” than to extend what orchestras usually play.

And obviously, for all you piano players, it’s difficult for most pianists to play more than an octave per hand. Yes, many can stretch a ninth, but that is difficult and nothing to count on, especially for those with small hands.

When have you noticed that a piece you wrote was more challenging than you expected?

Writing for an unaccompanied solo instrument

How do you write a piece for an unaccompanied solo instrument? One of the important things to note early on is the range of the particular instrument. Often it makes a big difference in the difficulty of the piece if you let the player play in the extremes of the register. So with that said, keep in mind your performer! Are you writing for a beginner, an intermediate player, an advanced player, or a professional? Can you throw them anything, and do you want to make it a difficult piece, or would you like it to be simple enough that somebody sight-reads it, and can make beautiful music out of it from the start?

You have to think of a melody, and a harmonic progression, even if there are no chords being played, they come through within the melody.

I listened to some TheFatRat pieces on the drive up to climbing practice today. There is a tremendous amount of repetition in pretty much any popular music. It can still be interesting because they introduce new things to vary it a little bit. They change the timbre, take away or add different instruments, distortions, etc. Here’s Monody, featuring Laura Brehm, that has lots of repetition but enough variation to make it interesting.

But when you have just one instrument – you have to think about variation a little differently. You can’t change the instrument – but you can give them a mute, which totally changes the sound. In the case of a string instrument, you can switch to plucking instead of bowing. In a lot of cases you can change from legato to staccato. You can vary the rhythm somewhat. Change from simple to compound meter or the other way around, or change from 4/4 to 7/8 by cutting out an eighth note wherever you choose. You can make octave displacements. I’ll expand on this some below.

One of my cherished memories from my second year at Brigham Young University was when I was thinking that I would like to be a part of the Group for New Music. I had just taken the last class in the music theory core, which included studying the Second Viennese School, including Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern. I absolutely LOVED the song “Wie bin ich froh” by Anton Webern. It has lots of octave displacements. If you listen to it, you will hear lots of ninths, sevenths, that the soprano has to sing. It’s a bit challenging, but also interesting. The reason I say octave displacements is because a song is often comprised of lots of stepwise motion, not lots of skips. This song has stepwise motion, but they are octave displaced, which makes very unusual skips.

When I spoke to Dr Christian Asplund about joining the Group for New Music, he informed me that I could just learn that song and then sing it for Dr Steven Ricks, who was over that group then. So I did. I learned it, and sang it, and he rounded up two other singers to perform the second and third songs from that same set at the concert that November.

Another thing to study could be a cadenza from a concerto. As I’m writing this, I’m listening to the F.A. Hoffmeister Viola concerto, movement 1 (for another performer, playing with an orchestra), and he’s just gotten to the cadenza. It’s not very long, but you can hear the harmonic progression in the solo instrument. You can hear how the violist gets to showcase several parts of the range, and there is a theme with development, so you feel like it’s the same piece, but not just the same thing again and again.

I was going to write more on the piece I had in my head Saturday night, but the problem is I left my notebook at home, and I’m sitting at a car dealership charging my EV. I probably will ruin the piece if I try to write without my notes. I had the piece all figured out, but I haven’t copied it all down into my software yet.

Poetry attacks in the night

Have you ever been just about to go to sleep, but then you get the first two lines of your next song? It’s almost physical, the words just come to you.

You grab your notebook that you keep for such occasions and a pencil and try to keep up as the words just keep flowing to you.

You know the title of the song, and you have a draft of the lyrics, when you start thinking of a melodic line to start out with. But it doesn’t stop there. You get the next four lines, and you don’t have staff paper or a computer with you so you just write down pitches, ideas that is a kind of shorthand that will help you know what you’re thinking when you get to the computer after the weekend.

You write in the chorus, the repeats, and through it all, you weep because you know the song has several depths and you have a hunch it will work well both for an instrumental solo or possibly a song if you choose to make it that way sometime. No, you weep because it’s your grief pouring out of you at the same time as the song is taking shape.

Well, I had one of those experiences Saturday. I haven’t had a lot of time to write down the music in my software yet, but my notes have been extremely helpful, for when I had a few moments to start on it.

The grief kept attacking me Sunday, and I could hear new rhythms that needed to be included. Because I like to take sabbath, I just wrote in a shorthand note to be able to retain the idea until later.