Monthly Archives: June 2012

Brass Quintet: Groovin’

This week we’re going to look at the last variation in the brass quintet.  If we look back at what came before, we can see that I teased an ending that was a little like the beginning – solo trumpet juxtaposed with textural writing for the others (although this time it’s less textural and a little more contrapuntal).  Instead of coming to an end (in a mysterious and ethereal way), which would be the logical course, it speeds up into this jazzy section that we’ll look at today.

If I had been writing this twenty (or more) years ago (or today in some institutions), the question of whether or not the “fun” nature of this last variation cheapened the whole and made it less than art-music probably would have been posed.  Luckily we (mostly) live in a cultural period where there is much more cross-pollination from different genres of music.  I’ll admit that there are going to be composers who would look down their noses at this section (actually, at the entire piece), but my mission for the variations was for a more light-hearted approach, and this ending is certainly light-hearted.  I feel like if I’m addressing my musical goals in a way that’s true to myself and the music, then I’m not betraying some sort of “high-art” ideal.  My philosophy will always be “use the techniques that benefit the end product,” not the other way around (the Machiavellian composer?).

So anyway, what we actually have here is a jazz rendition of the first strain of the Sousa.  It begins with an introduction with some nice syncopation, and my favorite jazzy chord (seen in measure 247) which contains the root, seventh, and the major and minor thirds.  For some reason, this says “jazz” to me more than any other chord.  When the trumpet comes in with the melody (in jazzier rhythms), the other instruments support it with harmonies that are derived from the original Sousa.

To get those harmonies I used a couple of different techniques.  The first of these is called Tritone Substitution.  Let’s say you’re in C-Major.  The dominant would be G-B-D-F.  In jazz, it is pretty common practice to substitute a chord that’s exactly half an octave (or “tritone”) away.  This works because it shares important common notes.  In this example, the tritone substitution for G-B-D-F would be Db-F-Ab-Cb.  Because the tendency tones (the B (or Cb) and the F) want to resolve to C and E, this makes the tritone substitution an effective substitute for a dominant chord – and much more colorful sounding.  I didn’t restrict this substitution to dominants, but used it liberally throughout this section.

The other one, which is also well-represented in this variation, is the “what sounds good to me?” technique.  I have the tune, and I’ve chosen where my tritone substitutions are going (mostly), and then I sit at the piano and play around with different chord choices until it seems to flow properly.  I will admit to not being the most fluent person when it comes to jazz chords (it’s on my list of things-to-do!), so perhaps it could feel ‘jazzier’.  At the moment, though, it feels fun and, well, a little groovy.

After we get through the Sousa, things really break out.  In measure 267, I drop all pretense of whatever “high art” is these days and go into a sort of gospel chord progression (I-IV-I-IV).  The individual lines are heavy on the chromatic movement that defined the Sousa (G-F#-G) in this case, and the second trumpet’s G-E-G clarifies the relation of the opening trumpet solo to the Sousa.  The piece continues, becoming texturally denser while the first and second trumpets keep trading the focus between them.  Slowly but surely, the harmonies become crunchier and more chromatic (with some more tritone substitution), until we reach a crisis point at 281, where the rhythmic density, the chromaticism, and textural density all combine to provoke a nice, big ending.  The ending punches are spaced according to the number series in the “Aggressive” variation, and the sting on the end is entirely necessary!

I’m not sure that the transition from the crazy gospel rhythmic density section to this ending is right, but I haven’t worked out anything better yet.  One thing I’m considering is having two free measures (or 4, perhaps) where I either give each part a chord (a different chord) and tell them to improvise based on the previous material around that chord, or to try to create some grand melange of all the previous variations.  That latter choice would be very “me,”  but I’m not sure how to execute it, or whether it would even work.

Here’s an extra problem, though – they’ve been playing for a long time.  I fear that it’s going to be too much for even the most steely of brass players if I add a lot of stuff here.  So I’m waffling.  Do you have an opinion?  Leave a comment!

Brass Quintet – Variation 5 – PDF

      Brass Quintet - Variation 5
 – MP3

So that is the end of this series on the writing of the brass quintet.  I had considered doing a post about revising, and I may still do that once I’ve had a little more time to sit and think about it, but as I did a lot of tweaking as I was writing these blog posts, you’ve seen most of the revisions in action.  In any case – I hope you’ve enjoyed these forays into a fun and slightly mysterious set of variations based on the Washington Post march.

My next composition is going to be three short movements for piano solo.  I haven’t really started writing them yet – perhaps we can take the journey together.

Brass Quintet: Fugue and Chorale

We are almost finished with the Brass Quintet (which I think will be named “Tango Townships” – an anagram of Washington Post that has a sort of Sousa Marchy Military kind of feel to me…).  This post will look at the two variations that surround the theme.  Whether or not I meant it in the planning stages (happy accident), these two variations (one of which is a fugue, the other is a chorale) both bring J.S. Bach to mind (even though they (mostly) sound nothing like him). This provides some sort of consistency going into and out of the theme, and helps hold the form together.

So what is a fugue and why did I choose one?   Well…the second question is easiest to answer – I have always had a deep affection for fugues (and counterpoint in general – you can see it all over this piece), and I enjoy adding them wherever I can.  A theme and variations seems like a fairly good place where a fugue-like structure (because it’s really only pretending to be a proper fugue) would not stick out due to the wide-ranging stylistic foundations.

The “what” is a slightly more difficult problem.  A fugue is a contrapuntal structure with a main theme (called the “Subject”) which is featured throughout.  At the beginning (the “exposition”), the subject is heard in each of the voices (alternating between the tonic and the dominant…long story), sometimes separated by little moments of counterpoint that are referred to as “episodes.”  Sometimes (and this is the case in my fugue-y section), there is a countersubject which is played at the same time as the subject (although not the first time).  It might be best to hear a fugue – this is one of my favorites…the “Little” Fugue in G-Minor, by Bach. (with neat visualization, but a synthesized organ) (no visualization, real organ)

You can hear how the piece starts off with the subject on its own – nothing to get in the way or confuse the listener.  Let’s break it down:

0:06 – Subject (times are based on the first link)

0:21 – Answer (subject in the dominant key) – the original voice (red) plays the countersubject.

0:35 – Episode – the two voices aren’t playing either the subject or the countersubject – they’re just spinning out to give the listener a chance to absorb.

0:40 – Subject (green) – back in the tonic.  The purple now has the countersubject.

0:55 – Answer (blue) – this will take us to the end of the exposition.  Afterwards things get complicated as people start to throw around words like “stretto” and “false entrance.”  I think we know all we need to.  If you want to learn a little more – check out this.

Ok – so we now know the basics of a fugue we can look at how I applied them.  This is the subject that I used:

Figure 1 – Subject

It incorporates two parts of the Sousa – the D-C# movement that will become crucial as we transition into the theme, and the beginning of the first strain (from the F-E-F) – the notes are the same (albeit transposed), but the rhythm isn’t.  This subject is first heard in the trombone (who I felt was being ignored and needed some TLC), and then passes to the horn (transposed up a 3rd instead of a 5th – scandalous!).  The trombone continues and plays the countersubject:

Figure 2 – Countersubject

This countersubject is a little more rhythmically diverse than the subject by design – it will be perceived more clearly as its own melodic voice that way.  It also has more chromatic motion (at the end) which ties this variation to the end of the theme and also to several of the variations that have come before.  There is a hint of the Sousa in the first to second bars.

The entrance of these voices takes us up to measure 125.  Even though the subject is basically in D-minor, the harmonic language is not really of the Baroque period.  I did not make a very big effort to avoid the things that Bach would have avoided (like parallel 5ths), and sometimes did what I thought was melodically appropriate instead of harmonically appropriate…this is counterpoint after all!

At 125, there is an episode that is intentionally cliche…you can hear it in any number of Baroque pieces.  It quickly dissolves, though, and becomes “weird.”  Don’t worry, though – all is put right by the third entrance – the tuba.  If this was a Bach fugue, this voice would be in the same key as the subject – that is, the home key.  Here, though, it is a 5th below the answer (or a major third below the subject)…very strange stuff.  The harmony on top of it is pretty normal, though.  I honestly can’t remember why I chose to put it in this key (it has been a couple of months now…) – I do like the way it sounds, though.

Next comes the second trumpet…again, not where it should be.  It is a (compound) minor third above the tuba entrance.  This at least is consistent with the opening, where the answer was a minor 3rd above the subject.  There is some method to this madness.

Finally, the first trumpet comes in and (horror) it is major instead of minor (and a major 3rd above where the last entrance happened).  The irony here is that after all of this key jumping, the final entrance is the relative major to the opening subject.  This leads into an episode which, again, starts off a little cliched and becomes harmonically more dense towards the end.

Why did I choose all these strange keys instead of following the standard tonic-dominant relationship of the Baroque fugue?  I didn’t want it to sound like a Baroque fugue because, with my de-emphasis of some of the core voice-leading rules, it would have just sounded like a bad fugue instead of a modern re-interpretation.  This makes it fit better in a theme and variation structure (and who wants to hear a bad fugue?).

Episodes continue throughout the development-like section.  The first (at 140) pits fast, fanfare-like lines in the trumpets (that are derived from the subject) against slower, slightly more polyrhythmic material in the other brass (where the subject is started in the tuba each time).  The chromatic material is explored more as the sense of fugue-ness breaks down towards the bottom of the third page, and, when it seems like I’ve moved on to something else, the subject comes back in again.  In the trombone.  In the tonic key.  Hooray!

The other instruments are not inclined to move away from the D-C#-D chromatic material, however, and that dominates, eventually becoming the main feature while the horn, trombone, and tuba pick up the rhythm of the Sousa.  With a crazy V-I (the first in the piece, I think), the theme (of the Theme and Variations) begins.

So maybe you understand why I chose to label the variation “Fugue-y” – it does have a lot of things in common with a fugue – subject, countersubject, staggered entrance of voice – but it’s missing many more (especially in the developmental and recapitulation sections).  It serves its purpose, though, which is to really hammer home the D-C#-D, and, in a large-scale way, to serve as a kind of dominant to the G-Major of the theme (schenker graph to follow…..not really).

Brass Quintet – Fugue – PDF

      Brass Quintet - Fugue
 – MP3

The chorale that comes after the theme seems much simpler in content and execution.  It takes its melodic shape from the Sousa strain (that shouldn’t be much of a surprise by this point), but with all rhythmic implications removed.  The first trumpet carries this melody and I contend that while you can hear it clearly at the beginning, the line becomes obscured by the other instruments which slowly develop melodic lines out of their harmonies as the variation progresses.

You can see the beginning of that in measure 206, where the second trumpet breaks away rhythmically from the rest, followed by the tuba, then trombone, and finally horn.  The transition from one harmony every measure to shifting harmonies each beat (and sometimes on eighth notes) allows for a subtle movement towards counterpoint (again) and allows for some nice suspensions and other dissonances to pop out of the music.  I think the part that sticks out for me the most is the trombone line from measures 216-218 – that really serves as the climax of this section.

Another way that independent lines are achieved in this variation is through dynamics.  Just take a look to see how I applied them to this variation – there is a concrete system to how I decide who gets loud when…

Brass Quintet – Chorale – PDF

      Brass Quintet - Chorale
 – MP3

The dynamics are governed by whether the instrument’s melodic trajectory is up or down.  If it is going up, the dynamics increase.  If down, they decrease (simplicity breeds complexity).  As I was composing this section, the knowledge that I was planning to use this to bring certain instruments out of the texture at certain times, plus the need to keep an interesting tension/release pattern for the harmony, made every choice crucial.  Even though this is a fairly short (in bars) variation, I spent as much time (or possibly more) on it as the fugue variation.  I’m still not 100% sure that I have it just right…that’s what revisions are for, though!

After the chorale is done, with a simple transition from the tuba we find ourselves back at the beginning (or a re-imagining of the beginning).  I had originally thought to end the piece as I began, with that mysterious aura, but, after writing it decided that that wasn’t “fun” enough.  So there is one more variation, entitled “Grooved,” that I will discuss next time.

Any questions?  Think you have a solution to the problem of the slightly not-right-yet chorale (or think that it is, in fact, just right)?  Leave me a comment!

What I’m Listening To – 6/12/2012

Another installment of “What I’m Listening To”!  Today’s piece is Louis Andriessen’s Nuit D’été for piano 4-hands.  I was somewhat surprised when this came to my attention because this is not the type of music I think of when I think of Andriessen (I think of things like Worker’s Union, which is a fabulous piece that you should also listen to – it is very loud and angry…not at all like today’s piece, which perhaps shows a mellower side of the composer).

So who is Louis Andriessen?  He is a Dutch composer who was born in 1939.  His music has been influenced by a lot of disparate sources (including jazz and improvisation).  I actually met him briefly at the Royal College of Music in 2005 when he came to talk to the composers – he was having a conversation with Julian Anderson about himself, his experiences, and his music.  I am sad to say that I don’t really remember what they talked about (although I did hear Worker’s Union around that time) – but I do remember being told that after the concert of his work (that was very difficult, apparently), he stood up at the back and gave a thumbs down to the (extremely hard-working) singers (one of the singers told me this afterwards…I did not actually see the thumbs down).  So maybe he was a bit of a…meanie?

Enough about that – I find it is dangerous to judge people’s music based on their attitudes (although the latter is sometimes reflected in the former).  I had a very ethereal mental image of George Crumb until he came to visit Carnegie Mellon and proved to be a very down-to-earth man with a strong West Virginia accent.  So now I just listen to the music (as much as possible).

And there is music to listen to here.  First thing’s first – this is a fairly early piece for him.  It was written in 1957 and is certainly not of the prevailing style of the Darmstadt school (which was into total serialism (a difficult topic to sum up in a parenthesis, but basically where everything from the notes to the rhythms to dynamics, range, timbre was based on pre-written sets – for dynamics, say, you’d have f, p, mp, ffff, pp, mf and so on – you’d repeat them in that order (or a permutation, inversion, or retrograde of that order)…hey – leave me a comment and we’ll discuss it later!)).  So what is it?  Well – on the surface, it has a fairly simple structure with a clear rhythmic motive to tell the listener what’s happening. The structure is ABA and that rhythmic fragment for the A section is:

Figure 1: Main Motive (I'm guessing at the 6/8)

You can hear Andriessen juxtaposing contrapuntal uses of this fragment with rich and jazz-infused chords that gently sway back and forth (although they start out quite thin).  He explores this for about 20 seconds and then returns to the opening material (00:22).  This time he thickens up the chords before continuing with the counterpoint.  This second mini-section is longer than the first, and explores a denser polyphonic texture.  It all reduces to a single note by about 50 seconds in, and by 00:55, we’re back to the beginning.

This time, however, the counterpoint is introduced right away (I imagine that the composer, rightly, feels that another extended introduction to the main melody (not quite the right word) is unnecessary by this point in the piece).  In this version, at 1:09, we hear a clear statement of what will become the glue for the B theme – a very simple but effective 3 eighth notes following the same pattern as in figure 1.  Here it continues downwards, which will be another feature of the B section.

Finally, for A, we get a coda (ending section) where the first three notes of the main motive are repeated rising up to a new registral high-point, followed by a soft low note.  This closes off the section and very quickly segues into B.

The first part of the B section is tied together by eighth notes rocking back and forth, but quickly expands into a middle line that has its own melody and character.  The first thing I thought when I listened to it was that it reminded me of the Brahms Rhapsody in G-Minor (go to 00:50 for the specific moment, but listen to the whole piece!) – the constant eighth note motion ties things together there (and in the end of the development, where Brahms links it to the first theme).  On top of this, Andriessen writes more big, rich chords (that still show a jazz influence).  It’s a really nice section – especially when (at 1:53) the downwards scales (which I mentioned above) begin.  At first, this descent is really brought out (in this recording, which features the composer), but becomes more subtly integrated as the section progresses.

We return to the start of the B section at about 2:13, with a return of the eighth notes, and again follow a different path in which the “glue” stays fairly static in terms of pitch (and rhythm).  It finally transforms back into the A material (figure 1) at 2:44, and to a literal repeat of the beginning at 2:50(ish).  This section is basically the same as the opening, so I won’t belabor the point.

I think the title fits the piece perfectly – it is totally reminiscent of a hot summer night in the city – a little lazy, a little jazzy…All in all, an attractive and tightly constructed piece that showed me a new side of a composer whose music I enjoy.

Did you enjoy it?  Leave me a comment!

(biographical information from:

Brass Quintet: Getting Aggressive…

Today we’re going to look at the most abstract of the variations – Variation 2:  Aggressive.  For this one, I have put the pdf and the mp3 here at the top so that you can listen first and try to figure out what is going on:

      Brass Quintet - Variation 2

      Brass Quintet - Variation 2

At first glance/listen, this may seem a very strange variation with little to no connection to the Sousa, but actually it is very carefully constructed from just one motive:

Figure 1: Generative Material

The easiest way to see this is in the harmony.  If you look at measure 86, you can see two chords (ignoring the original note) – one of them is quite crunchy, and the other is a 9th chord (D9) – I’ve gathered them in the example below:

Chords for Variation 2

So the crunchy chord (which derives from stuff in the beginning) and the 9th chord (which comes from the Sousa in Figure 1 – F-A-C-[Eb]-G is just transposed down to D-F#-A-C-E) are played by the quintet in alternation throughout this variation.  Sometimes I shift things around, but we always return to these two chords (although the “Crunchy” chord gets transposed up a third by the end – the intervals remain the same, though).  From a harmonic viewpoint, it’s the simplest variation by far.

Rhythm is the real driving force behind this part of the piece, and it follows a similarly simple pattern that is derived from that Sousa fragment.  If you count the eighth notes of that pattern, you get 3,2,1,3,3,9.  Now look at measure 86 again…we can see that the notes are grouped by that pattern (first a group of 3, then 2, then 1…etc.).  The harmony changes from the first to the second chord and back each time the group changes.  After we go through once, I started to combine two at a time.  Starting at measure 89, we have a set of 5 (3+2), then 4 (1+3), then 12 (3+9).  Math is fun!  Why did I do that, though…why not keep going with the original pattern?  I decided, after the very aggressive and quickly changing first cycle, to give the listener a little more time to digest the two chords, and to give myself the opportunity for more breathing space in terms of dynamics and pitch alterations.  It is no coincidence that the chords start moving within the groupings there.

After that second set, which ends in measure 92, I combine again, starting with 6 (3+2+1), then 7 (1+3+3), then 15 (3+3+9).  Again, the patterns are being lengthened, and I’m playing with the pitches of the chords more extensively.  The next section is interesting because I made a mistake when I was writing it (that I ended up keeping because I liked it).  If you look at the second trumpet part in measure 98, the groupings seem to be 3+2+3+9.  I started using alternating numbers to dictate the number of rests…but I used 2 twice.  I think that this goes to show that, while sets and sequences and rules can be interesting, sometimes what comes from (inadvertently) breaking the rules can be advantageous.

The five instruments are also staggered during this section, so you get a nice interplay of crescendos and accents throughout (and they, combined with the order of the entrances of the instruments, give this section its shape and color).  It suffers a bit of a breakdown in measure 108, where individual notes pop out of the texture thanks to accents that don’t follow the rhythmic pattern, and this leads into the last section.

Here (measure 110), the quintet regroups and alternates (maybe I should title this variation “Alternating Aggression” instead) between a burst of sound, and a rhythmically dense and complicated sounding cluster, which proves too complex for what has been a very eighth-note oriented variation and leads to a complete dissolution…leaving only a D-C# alternation (again!) in the first trumpet.  That D-C# could easily lead into the theme (it is how it begins, after all), but instead leads into every composer’s favorite go-to contrapuntal device…the fugue!

I’ll talk about it (and the chorale that bookends the theme) next time!  Please comment and let me know what you think – I’m interested in whether knowing about the numeric underpinning of the variation makes it more or less interesting to listen to!

PS – I’m trying to come up with a name that is an anagram of Washington Post and sounds sort of whimsical.  What I have so far is:

Awnings Hotspot, Tango Townships, Whatnots Posing, Wingspans Tooth.  Leave me a comment and let me know which one you favor (or a completely different one…) – let’s crowdsource this title!!