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!

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