Two Blogs

Hi Everyone – after a long silence, I thought I’d post two video blogs for a piece I’m working on called Divergent Impulses – a double concerto for Duo Scordatura.  One of these videos had a written out script, and the other was…more off the cuff…see if you can tell which!

Part 1:

Part 2:

As always, please leave a comment!

Piano Piece: Beginnings

Preface:  Apologies for the gap in posting – I got a job teaching at American University (hooray!!) and have been busy trying to prepare for the move from Pittsburgh.

Last time, I wrote about my desire to compose a piece for piano.  The process that I use to write this piece will be very different from my brass quintet for a couple of reasons:

  • I don’t have the Sousa as a generator of motivic material…I have to make up my own stuff…
  • The piece is not for anyone – I’m just writing it.  So there are no expectations of accessibility or stylistic/formal considerations.  I can just write what I want.

Caveat:  That is not to say that what comes out won’t be accessible – I do believe that a composer must consider the audience when he’s writing – even if it’s an idealized audience who catches all of your clever melodic/rhythmic/timbral/harmonic (etc.) manipulations (I often put somewhat obscure quotations from other pieces that relate to my subject into my works (for instance, the motive for the sunrise from Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe appears in my piece called “And I Felt the Sun, Rising” briefly towards the end – you’d have to really be paying attention to catch it, though…) – I think of these like allusions in literature…if the audience gets it, then the context and the work as a whole has been enriched for that person.  If not…it’s not the end of the world).  So I have a hope that people will not just listen to my piece and say “oh golly, how complicated that sounded,” but will instead have some sort of emotional reaction (even if they hate it…hey – at least it made them feel something, right?).

Enough of that…anyway – this time I have a title as well.  I’ve been hoarding this title all year (I meant to write the piece last summer, but my dissertation piece got in the way) – it is called On the Ceiling of the Sky.  I believe (true story) that I came up with it while staring at the ceiling one day.  So that kind of takes the quasi-poetic/romantic-ness out of it.

Armed with the title, I sat down to sketch out the processes that I was going to use, the general feeling of each of the movements (3 shortish ones), and some melodic ideas.  I’ve taken a picture and posted it:

If you can read my writing (and I frequently can’t), you can see that I started with planning the three movements as fast-slow-fast.  By the first I wrote “1000 refractions,” and “light on dew,” “gestural,” and “start high, expand range.”  Now I can tell you without spoiling anything, that three of those ideas made it into the draft I’m working on.  (N.B.  I think that “light on dew” doesn’t mean the same thing as “light on mayo” – I believe it refers to refractions…).

The second and third movements (which I’ll discuss at more length when I get closer to drafts of them) are themed as “atmospheric” and “clouds” (for the second), and “inside the thunderclap” (for the third).  I really like that idea, as in this piece I’m trying to really think about the contemplation and application of time in music.  Music is the most time-sensitive of all the arts – I often think that I don’t give enough thought to time in my planning process – I think about proportions (sometimes), but not about specific temporal actions.  Part of this is practical – let’s say, for a completely hypothetical example, that I wanted to write an orchestra piece where a bell went off exactly 1 minute in, and repeated each minute.  Because of the vagaries of performance, the likelihood of everything lining up and working as intended is minute (excuse the pun).  So that’s my excuse.  But I’m a Dr. now(!), and it’s time to start thinking carefully about all aspects of my compositions.

So the third movement is going to be my temporal zooming in (so to speak) on a thunderclap and what happens (I’m being really tangential today, but this is sort of analogous to the way that music works in Inception – the opera soundtrack they use for the bump (is that right?) is slowed down for the deeper levels of time – you don’t really hear it as the opera soundtrack any more – you hear something more brooding.  But it’s there – you’re hearing the insides of the sound…).  So I’m excited to get to the third movement.  But, since I’m something of a linear worker, I started with the first.

So let’s look further down the page of sketches – I decided to have rhythmic groupings for the first movement that form the bones of the piece – it’s going to work a little like the Ligeti Etude (“Fanfares”) I wrote about a couple of weeks ago – the barlines are largely incidental.  You can see that I made a mistake (as I was writing the movement) that I liked, and so I had to go back and fix my plan – another example of letting the ear lead rather than being strictly academic.

Finally, you can see the beginning of the piece as I was writing it at the piano – I don’t want to go to far into it, as then I’ll have nothing to write about next week, but you can see that I constantly put my accents backwards when writing by hand (who knows why…but that’s why music software is a must for me – backward accents are very unprofessional!), and I was figuring out (as I wrote it) how I was going to use the rhythms, pitches, and barlines.

So next week I’ll delve into the first movement a little more with a focus on shapes, how the rhythmic patterns work, and how I chose the pitches that I did.

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!!

What I’m Listening To – 5/29/2012

This is the first of a weekly series that will either focus on the music I’m listening to (and what I think about it) or be a guest post from another composer.  I decided to focus on one piece per week instead of a list of pieces (as I do listen to more than one piece a week…).  I also hope that this will engender discussion – tell me what you think of the piece, or if you disagree with the way I see it (or agree, for that matter).

To that end, I’ll also try to pick pieces that have youtube videos, so we can all be on the same page.

So this week, one of the pieces that I listened to was “Fanfares” from the Ligeti Etudes.  This piece was written in 1985, and was part of the first book (of three books).  I was listening to it in particular for a couple of reasons:  a) I’m (slowly) learning to play it, and b) I’m gearing up to write a piano piece, and so I’m picking up some inspiration (I wouldn’t be surprised if next week’s WILT is also a piano piece).  Oh…and I really enjoy listening to the Ligeti Etudes!

(Note on the recording:  I chose this one because it had some helpful explanations of what is happening in the piece.  It does have a few errors, though – there are many recordings to choose from if you want a “perfect” rendition.)

So what makes “Fanfares” (and most of the etudes) tick?  All in all there seems to be a pre-occupation with time and the subversion of our expectations regarding it.  Ligeti approaches that subject differently in many of his etudes.  Here, he supplies a continuously running ostinato that switches from hand-to-hand and octave-to-octave.

Ostinato from "Fanfares"

On top of this ostinato (which is interesting because it has an uneven beat structure – 3+2+3 – which Ligeti requires the pianist to emphasize) is a fanfare-like configuration, which is also generally made out of twos and threes (in terms of eighth notes).  When the piece begins, the ostinato beat pattern and these fanfares tend to line up (although not necessarily with the first beat of the bar – the idea of the bar becomes more and more irrelevant as the piece progresses).  The idea is that you should hear the fanfare as the beginning of a temporal grouping (that is, as a beat 1), and the fact that it lines up with the beats of the ostinato encourages that way of listening.

Things begin to break down at measure 46 (around 0:42 in the recording I linked).  We suddenly lose the dyads and their longer note values, making this section feel much more contrapuntal.  The hands are still accenting beat-groups together at the beginning of this, but a few measures in, the right-hand plays a group of three while the left-hand plays a group of two.  While the accents are re-aligned when the left-hand takes over the “melody,” they quickly fall out of sync again.

When the longer dyads come in, the rhythmic stability returns for a brief while before being subverted by strings of quarter notes (which go against the 3+2+3 rhythm of the ostinato).

At measure 116 (around 1:42 in the recording), the right-hand has a stable rhythm.  Unfortunately for the pianist, this rhythm has seven beats to the ostinato‘s eight.  That means that the beginnings of the patterns will only line up after every 8 repetitions of the right-hand pattern (and what happens at that point in “Fanfares”?  The hands switch so that the right-hand has the ostinato and the left the 7-beat pattern).

This breaks up in measure 137, where both hands have the ostinato for a few bars (around 2:01), but then it’s back to business as usual.  In this section, Ligeti plays with the dynamics of the fanfares, suggesting, perhaps, that whoever is “performing” them in the musical world is moving away from and towards the listener.  There are also some shocking dynamic changes (pppp to ff in m.171) that add drama.

Finally, towards the end of the piece, the “fanfare” lines start to get longer and feel slower (because of longer note values), and finally the ostinato travels all the way from the bottom of the piano to the top, which signals the end of the etude.

Why is it exciting?  Ligeti manages to subvert our metric expectations even though he has a constant eighth-note figure running throughout the piece.  I enjoy listening to all the etudes, but this one is a good introduction because it is the easiest to grasp (aurally) in terms of what’s going on.  I also like the way that the piece ends un-synced.  There is a tendency for me (as a composer) to want to finish a composition with a burst of “togetherness” (or something like that).  Here, Ligeti’s ending creates fascinating polyrhythms which, combined with the rise of the ostinato from the bottom to the top of the piano give the piece a very satisfying ending (although I must admit to being a little puzzled at the last note in the left-hand, which seems to be left hanging – it’s like the piece has been an explosion of perpetual-motion energy that finally gives way to physics in the end, and comes to a full stop).

So that’s the first installment of What I’m Listening To!  If you think there is something I should be listening to, leave me a comment and maybe it will show up here one week!  I’m still getting a feel for how these posts should run – more analysis/less analysis vs. more of my feelings about the piece/less feelings?  I’ll experiment – let me know what you think.


Brass Quintet: Quirky?

As I promised last time, this post will delve into the first variation, which is labelled “Quirky” (which, to be fair, could describe a lot of what I write, and perhaps who I am…).  I knew that I wanted this to be one of the more “fun” variations to balance out the mysterious atmosphere of the beginning.  So I sat and wracked my brains about what’s fun, and went to an old standby – the waltz.  

Why a waltz?  Well, while I can think of a few sad waltzes (mostly by Chopin – and they are all very beautiful), the genre tends to elicit joyful or “fun” memories for me.

So a waltz.  Now, when it comes to waltzes, people usually think of Chopin and Strauss (Johann, not Richard).  When I think of them, I tend to gravitate more towards Satie, and the Gymnopedies in particular.  A nice slow waltz.  A little ethereal.  I used a Satie-like section in my piano piece Frenetic Delicatessens (which may appear on this blog at a later date) – it is definitely my favorite part of that piece.

So, without further ado, I set out to create a quirky, Satie-like waltz (that uses material from Sousa).  If you listen to the MP3 (at the end of the post), you’ll notice that it starts out  more traditionally and gets more “fun” as we go along.  But what is actually going on?

Let’s start with the melody.  It may sound/look familiar, and that’s because it is (if you’ve been reading from the beginning).  It is the horn line from the failed opening that I wrote about early on (reuse and recycle!).

Horn Melody

This is, to begin with, basically the melody from the Sousa without the repeated notes.  When I got to the chromatic middle of the phrase I thought it was time to break off so that a) we didn’t get stuck moving around 3 notes for a long time, and b) I didn’t give away the theme too early.  So you can see the beginnings of the chromatic rising and falling line, but then the horn breaks away with a soaring B-A that serves as the high-point of the phrase.

Meanwhile, the other brass are filling out the harmony.  The first chord (C-E-G-A) is very similar to the first chord of the Sousa, but that quickly gives way to other harmonic material.  This accompaniment thickens as the horn reaches its high note, creating a brief falling texture that is reminiscent of the opening, and then reverting back to the waltz.

Rather than keeping it simple again, I add some chromatic motion into all the voices, which takes us to another high point where the trumpets have a more obvious reference to the Sousa (the second trumpet starts it, then they both have it).  This slight revelation leads to another chromatic collapse into the second part of the waltz.

Trumpets - Sousa Moment

This time, the harmony is more cluster-y (built of seconds), and the link to the Sousa comes from the fact that the 3rd beat is emphasized (in a similar way to the pattern of accents in the theme).  The horn comes back in with a similar melody.  This one, however, has a more traditional shape, and doesn’t hold on to the Sousa source material for so long.  The bass-line that the tuba plays also supports this melody in an almost-tonal way (see Satie!)  By the end of the second page, the tuba holds down the skeleton of a harmony while the other instruments have versions of the melody in a stretto configuration.  In this section, the horn loses the center stage, and I think the audience will notice moments where instruments pop out of the texture or take the lead (the main one being the trombone in 68-72).

By this point, things seem to have settled into a pattern – we have the waltz in the background, a melody based on the Sousa, and the occasional break-away moment followed by a regrouping.  I like it – it keeps things organized.  The problem occurs when I try to get into the next variation.  What can I mess with to cause an irrevocable breakdown?

  • Melody?  Nope – done that.
  • Harmony?  I don’t think that’s been an organizing factor, really.
  • Texture?  That’s the main thing – the build-up and dissolution of texture…it’s what’s been keeping the variation going.  It’s possible that this is the answer, but there is a better way.
  • Rhythm/Tempo!  Yep.  So far, we’ve had the same basic rhythm and no real moments of speeding-up or slowing-down.  It has just been plodding along.

So here’s where I choose to break my waltz.  I start preparing for it in measure 73 by eliminating the overlapping melodies and giving a it a very stable rhythmic profile.  This begins to break down in measure 80, where the waltz, as defined by the tuba, suddenly gets shifted into triplets.  Since we’ve been paying attention to that line from the beginning to define the measures, the lack of a steady beat is disconcerting.  This creates the illusion that we have an accelerando, even though only the tuba and the horn have the triplets.  The texture thickens, and the rising chromatic lines return to give us some tension that explodes into the next variation, labelled “Aggressive.”  I’ll walk through that one next week.

      Brass Quintet Variation 1
 – MP3

Brass Quintet – Variation 1  – PDF

Please comment and let me know what you think or if you have questions or if you want to discuss anything!  Starting next week, I’m going to have a second post that will either deal with what I’m listening to or be a post from a guest composer discussing some aspect of their work.

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.