Monthly Archives: April 2012

Brass Quintet: New Beginnings

In the last post I discussed my thoughts and actions in setting the theme of my brass quintet (which still doesn’t have a name).  As a theme, it serves as crucial generative material for the entire work–generative material that should be represented in the opening (at least, according to my writing preferences).  That would be simple in a “normal” theme and variations, as the theme would be there as one of the first things the audience heard, proudly proclaiming the material that was to be iterated upon.  This is more problematic in my “surprise!” theme and variations, since the theme is not heard until around the fifth minute of the piece.

The problem boils down to this:  How do I provide the audience with something that gives them a clue about where we’re going without spoiling the destination?  My answer was to take three elements from the Sousa, and combine them with techniques that I was planning to use in the variations…to give a sort of macrocosmic view of the piece in the first seventeen measures.

So let’s take a look at these things side by side:

Example 1

Example 2

Example 3

Example 2 stands out, not because it is unintentionally larger than the others, but because it contains that chromatic motion that is so integral to the Sousa march.  It plays a large part in my piece as well, and that is reflected in the beginning material, where the first and second trumpets have multiple chromatic inflections.

Example 1 is a little more obscure.  It comes from the second strain of the march (you can find it in my rendering of the theme area in measures 160 and 162).  Here, I have stretched the interval to a perfect fourth instead of a minor third.  The second time the trumpet enters with this, in measure 3, it reverts to a minor third for a touch more veracity.

Finally, Example 3 is also from the second strain–the very end this time.  Instead of putting this in the trumpets, I assigned it to the tuba as a bass line for the texture that follows the first trumpet’s opening notes.  I think that this works nicely – if you look back after the piece is finished, you can see the connection, but it’s not giving anything away.

So what is happening in those textural sections?  Well, the top and bottom voice are providing motivic material, and the middle voices are filling in the harmony.  There’s basically a white-note cluster from G-F that sounds warm (to me, anyway).  The conflation of the triple meter with the duplets foreshadows the dissolution of the theme that I discussed last time, while providing some rhythmic interest.  So what we have to open the piece is:

Cold and slightly mysterious solo trumpet->warm polyrhythmic texture.  I denote the trumpet as “cold” because I tend to think of the perfect fourth and minor second as “cold” intervals (I wrote an entire piece based on that notion, and it may appear here some day!)

We then have a similar section.  You may remember that in my post on the first beginning I tried for the piece, I complained that I didn’t like having two sections that did “the same thing twice.”  Here, I almost have that, but I avoid it by making some important changes.  As I mentioned above, the perfect fourth of the first trumpet turns into a minor third and we get some F and C-sharps.  This gives the texture a different feeling, even though it has basically the same rhythmic content.

From there, the piece starts to develop outwards (measure 6), with some interplay between the two trumpets, accompanied by a variation of the earlier texture.  All of this is brought to a kind of stasis in measure 8 by the introduction of the beginning of the theme in the second trumpet (F-F-E-F-G)(see example 2).  There is a pause for consideration, and the piece seems to restart (a little lower).  This time, however, the texture is missing, and we hear an almost chorale-like idea that is developed in measure 14, where I make an effort to keep instruments from changing pitch on the same beat.  This is important to keep the rhythmic flow moving, and also to set up a technique that I will use much later in the piece.

The beginning ends with an agreement on a G-Minor chord (that will lead to a C – shocking!).  The first variation is very different and will use the horn line that I developed for my failed beginning.

Brass Quintet – Beginning 

      Brass Quintet Beginning (mp3)

Why does this work for me where the other beginning didn’t?  I’m not sure that it’s “fun” per se, but I think it is mysterious without being ominous.  It has a few hints about the theme, and combines them with other hints about the techniques I’ll be utilizing in the variations themselves.  There’s nothing too “crunchy” in the harmonic language, and we approach some sort of triadic moment at the end.  I’m okay with that – there are plenty of nicely dissonant moments throughout the piece – I’ve always felt that implications of tonality or triadic writing shouldn’t be avoided if they feel right for the piece, and that they can live together with more atonal (or non-tonal) sections if prepared properly.  That’s the trick, though.

Thoughts?  Comments?  I’d love to hear from you!  I graduate soon, and will be away for a little while, but next time we’ll look at the first variation, which, to whet your appetites, is entitled “Quirky.”



Brass Quintet: The Theme

Last time I discussed a failed beginning and why it failed.  Today, I’m going to look at the theme a little bit more (based on the Sousa).  It is important to remember that this is going to come in around the middle of the piece, or perhaps the 2/3rds mark – it’s the big reveal that will (hopefully) take the audience by surprise (assuming they didn’t crack the code in the title – more on that later).

Instead of having the quintet play the whole march, which would take up a lot of musical real-estate, I decided to use two sections – the first and second strains without any repeats (in the file on the Imslp page, this is :07-:23 and :40-:56).  The first strain is presented pretty faithfully, with the trumpets taking the lead.  Instead of over-highlighting the offbeat accents (that I wrote about a few posts ago), I have the supporting instruments hop off the accented note (see below).  My reasoning here is that a) the trumpets have quite enough power to give those accents the intensity they deserve (and if I feel like it needs more, I’ll add accents there as well), and b) the fact that the supposed-to-be-accented pitch has a different articulation to the others will make it stand out anyway – sort of a white space thing.

Hopping off the accented note.

Otherwise, this first strain is mostly the same.  I do bring the trumpets down at m. 152 because I’m not sure that this is the right spot to have them screaming up to a high D.  The final change is the horn line in m. 155 – the first hint of non-Sousa chromaticism.  This brings the audience’s attention to the horn, who then picks up the melody for the second strain, where things get rather different.

Air Force Brass – Full Score – Theme 1 (this is for the section I just mentioned)

Air Force Brass – Full Score – Theme 2 (this is for the section I’m about to write about)

So far, the theme has been in G-Major.  The transition between the first and second themes in interesting because it abruptly changes to F-Major, which is not in the original.  I did this for a couple of reasons…a) I thought it would be a nice subversion that would foreshadow the breakdown of the theme in this section, and b) it makes the horn part a little lower and easier to play.

The first instrument to stray from the score is the tuba (isn’t it always?)(sorry tubists…), who adds a lot of chromatic inflection starting at measure 158, and continuing throughout.  The trumpets, who start off with the same offbeat rhythm from the first section, quickly start to have their own melodic moments, and, by 159-160, a trombone scale has turned into the melody.  I like the melody switching between voices as it gives the instruments a chance to rest for a moment, and also creates some nice timbral shading on the line.  The horn picks up the strain again and holds onto it until the first trumpet takes it in measure 169.

At measure 165, the chromatic breakdown of the strain is complemented by a rhythmic breakdown.  The tuba starts adding triplet motion to allow for a full chromatic scale between its important notes (which are still on beats 1 and 2 of the bar – the harmony is still extant…mostly).  The trombone, on the other hand, starts playing duplets, which will clash with the tuba.  The two trumpets are still playing offbeats, but often the wrong ones, and they break into chromatic descents as the strain ends.

      Air Force Brass - Theme
 (this is the midi rendering of the material I discussed in today’s post)

Basically, the Sousa themes, presented so nicely in the first strain of the Theme, are subverted and dissolved as the second strain runs its course.  The question is: why did I do that?  Why not allow the Sousa to play in full?

My answer lies in the purpose of this moment – it’s a reveal…but what do you do after the reveal?  Let’s look at it as analogous to a slight-of-hand magic trick (which is not a terrible comparison).  The magician, having shown his hands empty, produces a burst of flame and a dove (hopefully alive).  The audience oohs and aahs at his skill, or the shock of discovery, or the cuteness of the dove.  But after the oohs and aahs, the magician has to do something else, otherwise he’s a man on a stage with a slightly singed (and probably frightened) dove. He has to either move on to a new trick or do something with the dove.

And so I find myself in the same situation with the Sousa – I’m left on stage with an audience who’s (perhaps?!) appreciative that I have made the famous piece emerge from fragments that they may or may not have picked up on.  They ooh and aah.  But stand there too long–let the piece become the equivalent of that inert dove–and suddenly everyone becomes restless.  Awkward.  So, by the second strain, when the whole audience has seen the trick…knows what has happened, I undertake a new trick – to dissolve the piece and subvert the audience’s expectations.  Also, this is a neat way to get out of the theme without having to stop and start – the ending in measure 173 is nebulous enough that I could go with some more chromatic stuff for the next variation, or something chordal, like a chorale (those are the two options I’m considering).  I’ll let you know how it goes!

Next time, I’ll go back to the beginning and we can explore why I think this one works where the old one didn’t.

(As you can see from the files, I have about a 140 measures of stuff before this that I’m itching to share, and will hopefully start posting more often as the inexorable march to the Ph.D. reaches its climax (excuse all puns).)

Disclaimer: Aspiring Magicians:  Do Not Dissolve Doves.  I hear that is frowned upon.