Monthly Archives: March 2012

Brass Quintet: Unsatisfying Beginnings

In my last post, I described the beginning stages of composition for an as-yet untitled Brass Quintet.  Today I’m going to look at my first attempt at a beginning for the piece, and isolate why it didn’t work for me.  To recap, I am hoping to write a piece that is a) fun, b) a set of variations, and c) based on the Sousa march The Washington Post.  The two links below are the score and a midi rendering (sorry – it doesn’t really sound like a brass quintet…) of this beginning…take a quick look/listen and we’ll dive in to what is going on in the music and why it doesn’t work for me!

WasP, Oh Sing tonT! – Full Score

 (this goes a little further than the score I’ve linked…don’t worry – it’s still unsatisfying!)

A note about the title: WasP, Oh Sing tonT! was supposed to be a clever mash-up of the words “Washington Post” (and also supposed to sound vaguely German).  It has, however, confused everyone I’ve mentioned it to, so I’ll probably scrap it.  I do have a few neat anagrams of the words…maybe I can get a poll up here and we can do some crowd-sourcing.

Anyway…back to the music.  The horn takes the lead here (I have always loved the sound of the horn, especially the high horn) with what I thought was a mysterious melody (m. 1-8).  The melody is derived from the second Sousa fragment in the last post (minus the first measure and the note repetitions).  Meanwhile, the low brass play chromatic lines underneath (chromatic lines being a feature of this particular march).  Finally the trumpets come in with bursts of sound that get longer each time.  All this comes to a head, suddenly stopping and leaving a “mysterious” silence, which the horn fills with its opening line (chromatically altered).  This is accompanied by the low brass doing basically the same thing as before (but this time in contrary motion and with a little more rhythmic disunity…).  The trumpets come in again…again doing the same thing differently.  The only real difference is where they end up – with a statement of the second Sousa fragment (in a different key with a slightly altered beginning)(m. 22-23).

So what’s wrong with it?  Well – there are a few things:

  • It’s not fun.
  • It is boring.

Yikes – seems harsh.  Well, all is not lost, as there are some ideas here that can (and have) been ported over to my latest attempt.  For instance, the horn line (which I like for its lyrical nature) is put into a different setting and works a lot better.  I also lifted the trumpet ending and added that to the mix.

So, with that in mind, let’s look at why this attempt is both “not fun” and boring.  I was going for something mysterious for the beginning (and I haven’t changed that goal) but this was less mysterious than ominous.  All that low brass…staccato…and sudden clashing trumpets makes the opening unsettling and slightly muddy – it will give the audience a misleading impression about what the piece is going to be like (don’t get me wrong – that could be a nice bit of expectation subversion, but it’s not what I want to do here…being mysterious about the theme is subversive enough for me this week).

It’s boring because it basically does the same thing twice – the second section changes a few things, but follows the same trajectory.  If this section was the “theme” of the “theme and variations” it wouldn’t be such a big deal, but since it’s just an introduction (that is related to the theme), it is important to keep things moving and developing…especially as this will not be an especially long piece.

What it boils down to is that, as in most things, it is important to make the right first impression.  If I am writing a piece that is constructed out of mostly crunchy harmonies, then I wouldn’t want to start out with a Bach Chorale (to be absurd).  And so here, since I am writing a “lighter” and “more fun” piece, it would be jarring to start with an ominous and dissonant beginning.  And so I started again.  I will discuss the new beginning in the next post.

Agree or disagree with me?  Is there something you’d like me to elaborate on?  Leave me a comment and we’ll discuss!

First steps: Brass Quintet

The piece I am writing at the moment is a brass quintet – one that I’ve been meaning to write for at least a couple of years.  I haven’t written any other pieces with this instrumentation, so it will be an adventure (there are multiple reasons for this…one of which is that I have always had something else that was more pressing.  However, at the moment I’m in some weird limbo place between turning in my dissertation to my committee and actually defending it, so I thought…why not?).

I knew from the beginning that this piece was going to be a “fun” piece, and decided to base it off of a march that I played in a two-piano arrangement when I was little:  The Washington Post, by John Philip Sousa.  I did this sort of thing once before in a piece called Master Variations for a middle school band – the idea is that the piece starts mysteriously, and there are a number of variations, but no clear presentation of the theme until suddenly it appears fully formed in the middle of the piece.  I like this form because it contains a big reveal that the audience can enjoy, and, if they are paying attention (or have read the program notes), anticipate.  This is part of the “fun” factor.

So the first job, then, becomes to look at the quoted piece and pick out bits and pieces that could serve as points of departure (for the score that I’m using, please visit IMSLP – they also have a recording posted).  I’ll quickly look at two here from the very beginning of the Sousa piece:

Sousa Fragment 1

Sousa Fragment 2

Fragment 1 is from the very beginning of the march and is a good example of the chromatic lines that crop up throughout.   Fragment 2 also contains a little chromatic motion (in the first measure), and contains the most recognizable part of the melody.  It also has a rhythm that Sousa uses throughout the piece (short LONG – the fact that the accent happens on the second beat of the bar makes it a little unusual and a possible candidate for a variation).  There are more elements that I’ll discuss as we go along, but these two fragments will form the foundation for the majority of my piece.

Next time I’ll discuss my early attempts at a beginning for the brass quintet, and try to isolate why they failed (or why I didn’t like them).  Tune in!


This is the first post of many that I will be making to this blog.  I intend for it to be a reflection on the way I compose and a place to discuss both my music and the music that I am listening to.  It will give people a window into my compositional and analytical thought processes, and…who knows…maybe inspire someone (hopefully at least me!)  Please post any comments or thoughts…I’ll be unpacking my current as well as some previous works, and feedback is always appreciated.  Plus, then I’ll know that I’m not writing these words into the void.