Monthly Archives: February 2023

Repeating figures, counting, and waltzes

It’s been a week, and I haven’t even tried to write anything more. However, I’ve been really good about trying to learn the orchestra music for our next concert. Since I figured out that I didn’t have to practice everything at once, and that if I can carve out at least four practice days a week, it is not that hard to at least play every note once between rehearsals. I’m even practicing the counting (not the long rests, only to feel where in the measure my notes fall, and the figures within the measures I play).

There are many times in orchestra when you’re given a ton of notes to play repeatedly. You get a figure that has three, or six, or four notes to it. There is this one part of the Saint-Saens Harp concerto that I was working on, where we play in 3/8 meter, and you have to feel three to a beat. It’s not bad to practice that feel. I think it will get easier the more I do it, and since I don’t have that many years of orchestra practice, I try to make up for it in my practice room. In the Grieg piano concerto, there are parts where you have to feel six or four to a beat, and it switches every now and then. (Here’s a link if you’re interested in going to TSO’s next concert!)

Six is a little bit tricky. I like to think one-and-two-and-three-and, etc., because it is fast enough that if I can count every other one, I feel like that is better. My brain can’t count fast enough otherwise.

I do have a few minutes to write today, and I am thinking about whether I should incorporate a repeat somehow, or if I want it to be more rhapsodic. Seeing as it is a waltz, and how repetitive they usually are, I am leaning towards finding a good spot to repeat. When I was warming up for practice yesterday, I was playing my old Vals från Rundvik, and I was reminded of how important the repeating figure was to the success of the piece.

It’s not that hard to keep writing in the same style, and I find that the viola part flows into place with not much effort. I have found some gestures that I rewrite in different ways. I similarly add in the cello part, and in some strange way find that 37 measures marks the repeat point. I doubt anybody can do a dance that works out great to that kind of prime number. Seriously. But maybe it’s not a dance piece, even though it pretends to be.

Let me know, if you’re a dancer, how it works if it doesn’t add up to a good number, how does the dancing turn out? I always thought it should add up to 8 or 16 or something like that. And here I am. If I have to, I suppose I could try and fix it so it adds to 40 before the repeat. I don’t think it will go down to 32.

Articulation, and what it does to a dance

As I’ve said previously, it’s been intimidating to write a second movement to my string quartet. I wasn’t sure if I loved what I had so far, and I was kind of second guessing myself.

Today’s workplace happened to be outside a classroom where they were learning ballroom dance. I have my headphones on, but they do not cancel the noise outside, and I find myself in the waltz mode a little more easily because of the ambient music.

I look at the piece I’m working on, and realize that what I need is some more clear articulations to help the string players play the right kind of lightness. A waltz cannot be played heavily. It just doesn’t work right. You want it to kind of float. So despite all the more or less dissonant melodic material, harmonized into what I think sounds right, but maybe isn’t the typical Johann Strauss Jr kind of harmony, if you know what I mean, I am really attempting to write a “light” atonal waltz. It’s a fun challenge, and after adding in the articulation, I find that the viola part isn’t hard to write at all. (I had left off the piece with gaps in the middle parts, so next will be some work on a second violin part).

However, the dance class switched and they are playing something Latin inspired, and the rhythm doesn’t work at all with what I’m doing now. I have a hard time finding flow, and I hope to get back to writing later today.

The process of working with a performer

Last week I had the privilege of meeting with my friend Michelle Flowers, who is a doctor of trombone performance, and has been teaching in Texas for several years, but happened to be visiting in Utah. She had asked me to write a piece for solo tenor trombone, which I did a couple of months ago. We finally had a chance to get together for a live read, which is one of my favorite things to have happen as a composer. I learn so much every time I get to talk to a musician trying to understand my ideas I’ve put down on paper for them. It’s also immensely satisfying to hear the interpretation of a great performer playing the ideas I have only imagined.

After catching up (we were undergraduate music students at the same time) on what’s going on, she played through the piece, and we addressed a few things in it. One was that where the music kind of demanded a low D, but I thought that it was “out of range” and therefore had given her an F#, but we changed it, since with the trigger, it worked just fine for that note.

We also clarified what note each trill was supposed to go to. I actually wrote this piece in key signatures, unlike what I usually do in my compositions. So I told her to trill to the half or whole-step above it, in the key signature, and it sounds idiomatic that way, in my opinion. That meant a variety of techniques to make it happen, but they all work. Sometimes a trigger, sometimes a lip, sometimes a slide trill. They all do the job, in slightly different ways.

When writing for the tenor trombone, it is generally better to not stay in the really low register for a long time. It speaks better a bit higher, anyway. But on occasion, it’s valuable to know that many trombone players can get an occasional low D, despite the orchestration books telling you that E is safer. In an orchestra setting, I would probably just give a low D to the bass trombone, but this is a solo piece.

There was also this place in the piece which I call “SPECTACULAR,” after the crux of the poem that I had written to support the music. Michelle suggested that I add in a little bit more lyrical phrasing right there. So when I sat down to process that, I wrote in another phrase, and landing on a fairly high G#, before launching into the “cadenza” of the piece.

Writing for a particular performer is one of the loveliest things to do, and it is especially fun when I’m writing a piece that is supposed to really showcase what the instrument can do. Michelle could tell that I’m inspired by Webern by how the lines are written. It’s impossible to hide. It just pops up again and again. Once upon a time, I had it in my mind to do doctorate research on the performance practice of Webern’s vocal music. It hasn’t happened yet, but maybe one day I’ll go and research that topic more.

Today I revisited the piece, and I’m still pretty happy with the flow of the song. Looking forward to a live performance of it before too long, hopefully!

Writing parts – also known as harmonizing

It’s actually really interesting to me that so much of the harmony is implied in the initial melody. If the melody follows a tonal pattern, then it begs for harmony that reinforces that – and conversely, if my melody is more atonal, toying with twelve-tone patterns, the harmony is demanding to be more like that too. If I should try to insert lots of regular trichords (think major or minor chords, mainly) to an atonal line, I think it would feel misplaced – unless, of course, it isn’t trying to follow exactly a regular bass-line or chord progression from the tonal tradition.

So while I feel like it’s not hard to write in the harmony, I’m questioning my choices yesterday. Do I like what I hear? I think I will continue to work on this thread – meaning the melody I wrote yesterday, with its accompanying harmonies I’m continuing on today – a bit longer and see if it redeems itself before scrapping it.

What makes music compelling? Why do you want to continue listening? The counterpoint certainly helps, but if the melody doesn’t want to stay in your head after listening, maybe it is just another piece you’re going to forget as soon as you heard it. So I’m second guessing my choices but don’t want to give up yet. I’ll let you know what I decide to do as I look at it again with – hopefully fresh eyes – next time.

Getting on with the next movement

I’ve really struggled to figure out what’s next. I have focused on trying to play more consistently, like pull out my instrument and practice like I did when I was in lessons. I figured it would be a good idea to play through all the pieces we’re playing in our concert on Friday and Saturday (Timpanogos Symphony Orchestra, at Orem High school) – Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto, Hindemith’s Metamorphoses, and Wagner’s Die Meistersinger overture. So a total of eight movements, and I thought two movements per day was pretty good, not overwhelming. It’s getting easier. I’m playing the hard parts at a slower tempo, which makes them more doable. It’s not like I’m going to play them slow at the concert. It is really important to stay with the beat, and it is even more important to stay with the beat than to play all the notes, or even the right notes. Playing the right notes at the wrong time is much worse than the wrong note at the right time in an orchestra setting, especially if the texture of the orchestra is very full at the time. At the same time, being able to play them slowly means that I am telling my brain what the melodic and rhythmic pattern is, so that it’s easier to recreate in the section in the middle of the piece.

As I’m tuning in to an old radio program from 2013 where Donald Maurice, Claudine Bigelow, and Scott Holden play various inspiring music featuring the viola and piano, I find my old love for Bartók’s music rekindled, and for some reason, a melody starts to take shape. I write it down as quickly as I can, and I wonder if the first 17 measures will be like the theme of the movement.

Last time I sat down to create music on my score, all I had come up with was the setting of the string quartet, the tempo, and the meter. But today, it’s obvious that it’s kind of like a waltz. It’s hard to imagine the harmonies I’m going to feature at the same time I’m listening to other music though. When I listen through what I wrote, I love the melody, but it’s too slow, and I decide to change the tempo to being defined by the dotted half note instead of the quarter note.

When I pick it up next, I’ll be sure to focus on harmony and counterpoint, and developing the theme further. It should be fun to have a waltz, it’s been a while since I wrote one. If you’re curious, listen to Vals från Rundvik! (You have to scroll to the bottom of the page, it’s the last recording on the page).