Monthly Archives: April 2023

Spitting out notes

Yesterday it was exciting to try out the pieces I had written. I toy with the idea to not write anymore on the fourth movement, mostly because I feel tired and want to work on a new project, but ultimately, I listen through the entire piece, and then just the “ending” of where I had left off. Suddenly I hear in my mind a cello line! That’s what I needed to get started. So I start writing the cello line. Then I have an idea of how to add a viola to it, but before too long, I know more of how the cello continues.

And I go back, and the second violin part makes itself known, and now I’m just wondering how the first violin part will present itself, and then I’ll have to finish the viola line that is gaping with its unfinished-ness. There’s this part I really like in the second violin part, and I’m thinking of how to extend it into the other parts. I have lots of staccato eighth notes in this movement. So that is kind of the default articulation, and anything outside of that sounds like melody.

You may have heard uncounted piano accompaniments that sound like arpeggios without end. Yes, if you’ve heard a lot of popular accompaniments on the piano, it is typical for the piano. It doesn’t really stand out that much anymore. I’m thinking now of Gounod’s Ave Maria, which is written to Bach’s Prelude in C major from the Well tempered Klavier. It is a lovely piece on its own. I also think that it has inspired a lot of people to try and write the same kind of accompaniment to any kind of inane melody they come up with.

My point today is that an accompaniment doesn’t have to mimic this style of arpeggiated chords going and going and going and going like Bach (nothing against Bach! See my post yesterday). You can pick a different style, and listen to some Bartók for inspiration! Also, my second point is that the accompaniment in itself can be worth putting a lot of effort into. It shouldn’t come as an afterthought. Include it in the entire composition. I’ve said it before: the melody informs the harmony, but it also goes the other way, so the harmony makes a framework for the melody to dance in. Just like in jazz, where you have a bass line, and then improvise on top of that, you can write an accompaniment, and improvise on top of that. Composition is typically one person writing all the parts in advance, but it really has a lot in common with improvisation. You come up with one thing, and then the next, and then the next. It is too difficult to keep the entire piece in one’s mind all at once, and if you can keep just an idea in your mind, and then develop that, it is good enough.

So I am happy to have spat out a few more notes into my piece, and I’m hoping that I can write enough notes to make it feel complete before too long. I’ve got to start on the next project really soon, and I struggle with multi-tasking. I might have to start on it before completing this one though. I’ll tell you how it goes.

Different versions??

As I worked some more on the fourth movement today, I realized that three weeks ago, I had diverted from the original score, and had kept working on a backup version by accident. So that was interesting. Thankfully, I had not kept writing on the original score, so the backup version works out, and now that I have renamed it, it’s easier to find in my file system.

(I guess there had been a glitch in my system, so that when Windows suggested what file to pull up when I typed in “sib” for Sibelius, it didn’t pull up the original file, but a backup one instead.)

I decide to listen to the other movements to see how I’m faring with getting a “fast and furious” ending to the string quartet. I’m wondering how long to write it. At a quarter note equals 120, you have to fit in an awful lot of eighth notes or sixteenth notes to fill say, seven minutes. I don’t count them, because what’s the point? I don’t know if I want seven minutes even. It’s not quite three minutes long, and it’s taken me a long time to get even that far.

As I was studying what I had written so far, I realized that I had kept the violins pretty low for most of the movement. Not even getting on the E string hardly at all. So I worked in some higher notes in the next little bit of music. I also noticed that the theme in the fourth movement really sounds like a part of the first movement in particular, and that makes me happy.

I am excited about tonight, because we’re going to try and read the first three movements as a string quartet. So maybe my time would be better spent just practicing and warming up instead of writing more notes, since it’s highly unlikely I could finish the piece tonight anyway. I push through and write in the cello part where I kind of know what to do and then I decide to just print it off even if it’s unfinished. Or is it? It’s an interesting question that deserves more time, but in any case, I think it’s better to present nearly three minutes of music and say you may get more later, than to not give it out with the excuse that it isn’t done.

As a student of composition, my works often went through a couple of iterations of reading before completion. You learn invaluable things by letting a performer try it out.

Perhaps I’ll know what to do with the rest of the last movement after playing what I have so far with my quartet friends.

What about some pizzicato?

I started on this kind of contrapuntal line in the second violin last time, without giving it backing from the other instruments, and I realized when I got back to it today, that I wanted it to really stand out. So I actually give the first violin a few measures rest, and I decide to give the viola and cello an accompanying line that is plucked instead of bowed. This means that the line will really come out. I remember studying 18th century counterpoint and especially Bach’s inventions and fugues, and I try to imitate his style a little bit when I write the next line, which I give to the first violin.

It’s always fascinating to try and pin a stroke of inspiration on what’s going on. Easter just happened, and I was part of a women’s choir that sang “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” (which was written by Bach), so the Bach-ian lines are pretty fresh in my mind from singing that piece. But since Bach is one of the ostensibly most accomplished composers of all time, I don’t feel like it can ever be wrong to get inspiration from his music. One of the many things I admire about him is his sheer size of work he left behind. He wrote so much music. His music also typically really sounds like his own, which means that he refined his own musical language in all the pieces he wrote. He has this lovely way with working from one chord to the next, and it feels like it fits, and you come to expect it a certain way. One of the things we probably all like to hear in music is some kind of predictability, and also some surprising elements. So a piece that starts out with inspiration from Philip Glass, and continues with inspiration from J. S. Bach, I hope will still sound like my music to the listener.

So after the first violin finishes the answer to the first line, the viola gets the response. I have to go now, but I’ll probably let the cello answer to that line, and then let them all play something together, which sounds like it belongs, with the right blend of anticipation and surprising elements.

The discipline to write

I think I must have written about this before. Sometimes you just don’t feel super excited to write, but the piece has to get written anyway. And the case right now is that I’ve written three movements, and I’ve commenced on the fourth and final movement. It’s not hard to fill in more notes to keep the ideas going, and to weave in the previous movements’ themes. It does require a good amount of focus, and I know it will be hard if I’m interrupted a lot while I’m working on it.

When I pull up the score today, I decide to start with a cello line, and I write what I think will be a good bass line. Then I add in the viola line, and next the second violin line, and last of all the first violin line. It is really interesting to me, that even though the top line typically will sound like the melody, that all the harmony underneath really supports that line, and while I could write a few different versions of the top line, it is quite constrained by all the other lines. The counterpoint in a string quartet is one of the most compelling reasons to write a string quartet. You try to give all the parts interesting lines to play, that lets them give the line to one another, and it’s best if all the lines will feel melodic and connected.

Once I’ve gotten to the end of that small section, I decide to lead with the first violin instead. I’m keeping in mind the idea I had early on with this piece, which is harmonic rhythm, that I let that be one of the things I focus on. Not switching harmony too often, or if I switch, it’s a smaller switch, where maybe just one note changes instead of the entire tetrachord (four notes that form a harmony, as opposed to a trichord, which is what you find in a major or minor chord, and with four notes, you’d often have doublings). There’s this one part where I notice that a measure is a beat shorter than the surrounding ones, and I make a 3/4 measure in the middle of the 4/4 piece. I see that often in the music I read, and it’s just part of what makes the music more interesting.

I finish that part, and I hear in my head a cello line, so I start with that next. Sadly, the kids are playing really noisy music toys upstairs, and I don’t know if I can keep the music straight from what I’m writing. It’s definitely the wrong key, and it just doesn’t fit. I think I’ll get back to this tomorrow. I conclude that I’ve added another 25-40 (depends on how you count) seconds of music, and decide to be content with my progress.