Category Archives: Composing

More on counterpoint

Picking up the string quartet again. I’m listening through what I wrote last time, and I’m adding in a crescendo where it seems obvious I ought to. I add in some slurs where I hadn’t gotten to that earlier. Then it’s time to write another part of the first violin part. True to form, I write on that part until I’ve extended past the end of the last cello line. I put in a rehearsal mark to assist with rehearsals.

And I do something similar with the second violin part. Rests here and there add to the interest of the piece. Trills give you a break from the melodic line. Changing the articulation helps show that it’s a new part. (I’m talking about a staccato section for all the strings at the same time. But it could just as easily be another change. Very legato, accents, marcato, etc.).

As I put in the viola line, I decide to make a little bit of a canon. Letting the viola play what the second violin just played, but delayed two measures. We’ll see how this shapes up! And then a change in mood happens. The careful staccato leads into octave jumps and some accents. I’m going to have to see if I can incorporate that figure into the other parts eventually.

The cello line gets to shine a little now, playing some high notes, and I think it will sound really beautiful. But I’m running out of time to write this moment, and I’ll have to leave it for a while at least.

Next time, more work on each of the lines. It is exciting to see what will happen.

Why add dynamics?

It’s often one of my least favorite things to do, and I often push it off to the very end. I wrote a song a few months ago called Thou shalt call and the LORD shall answer. My first draft that I gave to the group had no dynamics on it at all. While we rehearsed it, it became evident that we needed to all be on the same page, so I put in some dynamics. It proved difficult to communicate clearly enough for everyone to catch exactly what I meant though, so I updated the score and gave them new ones.

I also noticed at rehearsal that the viola part was a little bit overpowering a few times, and I took out several notes to give the singers more space. It’s a reminder that rehearsal often clarifies things and it’s ok to change things. With the software I have available, it’s a quick thing as well.

Last night at dress rehearsal for the TSO (concert tonight! it’s sold out at the UVU) we were playing an arrangement for Ding Dong! Merrily on High by Heidi Rodeback. We played her arrangement with the choir for the first time, and she was listening. After we had played through the entire program, we got new parts, and played through it again. The entire viola section was disappointed because she had taken out our favorite part. But it’s not important. She decided our favorite part had to go, so that’s how it’s going to be. When you sit in the middle of the orchestra, it is difficult to judge how the balance is working as a whole.

Another note about dynamics. It’s one of the easiest things to change in a piece that’s written. It may say forte, but as you rehearse, your conductor tells you to change it to mezzoforte. Or any other change. But the dynamic marking is a placeholder for a change as much as it is a marking for how loud it is supposed to be. I think I’ll be more careful to put in dynamic markings for any pieces I write. I was going to send in a song to a competition, and I realized I had put in zero dynamic markings. So that’s why I worked through the song again, put in my markings, and wrote this post about why it’s a good idea.

More work on the string quartet

I’m opening up the score for the string quartet, and it’s really fun! I’m seeing where the melody left off, where the parts left off, and try to write a little on each part, one or two phrases at a time, so that they all feel like they are part of the improvisation that isn’t really an improvisation. But I keep in mind that all the players want to play something that is meaningful. It has to fit with the rest, and they have to alternate having the carrying line.

I’m thinking that the studying of counterpoint proves pretty helpful at this point. J.S. Bach wrote so much contrapuntal work that his work is probably some of the most inspiring – but there are others too. Handel, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Bartok, Schoenberg, Webern, just to name a few great ones.

It’s the idea that you have a theme that is short and concise, that you vary. You let each instrument say something, sometimes as the main melody, and other times as more of an accompaniment, but each new phrase will usually change the constellation of who leads and who supports. It’s very much like a dance.

So I find myself writing a few measures for the viola, and some for the second violin, etc, each time ending a little after the other line, so that it’s kind of like a puzzle, where each new idea has to fit into the framework I’m creating, and as I’m fitting the new idea into the framework, I also extend the framework for the next line to fit into.

At one point, the two violins and the viola all come to an end of their phrase at the same time, so that prepares the way for the cello to take the lead. Next, I write in a contrapuntal line in the first violin, and it ends about five beats after the cello line. The second violin comes in with the first violin, but then it diverges, and the phrase ends five beats after the first’s. Next comes the viola. I decide to give it a measure of rest before coming in, and then I write a contrapuntal line for this instrument. This time I keep going for twelve beats after the second violin before I feel like the line is ended.

That maneuver means that I have twenty-two beats where the cello has nothing, but at least one other instrument has something. So that will be the next place where I put my attention. And I write a line for the cello, and I write until the end of the viola line, and then I see that I have an opening for a transition to something different. It’s a minute into the piece, and I feel content with having given an exposition to the first theme in that minute. There is enough repetition, and enough variation that I feel pretty content with the balance.

Next time, I’ll finish up the end of the exposition in all the instrument, and allow the upper three to join in the new part. Ha! That will be fun.

Working on a string quartet

I don’t remember exactly when, but I think it was sometime in my second year in the music program as an undergraduate, that one of my teachers said something about how a string quartet was a hard group to write for. I had initially thought that I’d write my music drama with a string quartet accompanying the five singers. But my mentor Christian Asplund recommended thinking of the possibility of a different constellation, and I settled on two clarinets, violin, and cello. Here is the page where you can hear Stone-waltz. And here is the page where you can find Electricity-dance, two of my favorite pieces from the drama The Exchange.

A few years ago I approached Don Peterson, who was then the director of the Wind Symphony at BYU. I was interested in writing a piece for his ensemble. He asked me if I listened to a lot of band music? And the truth is, I hadn’t really done that. He gave me several of his ensemble’s recordings and I started listening to them all the time for a while. It helped me get a feel for how the ensemble works, what different roles the different instruments can play, etc. It took me a while to complete the work, but I still have the first movement and it hasn’t been played yet. Holler if you know of a band that wants to try it! I call it Acceptable, and the title might bring to your mind grading at Hogwarts. But it’s actually derived from scriptures in the New Testament.

There are several that talk about acceptable sacrifices to the Lord, such as this one: 1 Peter 2: 5. “Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God by Jesus Christ.” (italics added).

Well, I have tried playing string quartets one time when I lived in Rundvik. I had gathered a few friends from the folk music ensemble (Umeå spelmanslag) and we got together for a few months and played some quartets. I know playing chamber music can really improve your overall playing, and besides, it’s just a lot of fun. Your part is really important, but it’s so playful because it’s constantly interacting with the other parts. And nobody else plays exactly your part, so it’s a good challenge.

A little while ago I had the idea I should try my hand at writing a string quartet. And instead of having to check out CDs or buy them, I can now just stream them. So I made a playlist with a bunch of Felix Mendelssohn and Bártok quartets that I could play while driving, cooking, watching kids climb, or whatever I needed to do with only using half a mind. And recently I had a first rehearsal with some other string players to try out quartet playing. It was exhilarating! The music is so beautiful, and it’s fun to try and give the composition justice in our interpretation of it.

One day a couple of weeks ago, I wanted to work on a solo piece, but I had left my notes at home. So instead I just started a score for string quartet. And today I pick it up again. All that listening will probably affect the way the quartet sounds! I like more augmented triads, and I like to think that I’m not still in the harmonic language of Mendelssohn, beautiful as it is. But the playful interaction between parts, that I hope to retain. The figures going from one instrument to another. The importance of landing on a chord that sounds like the harmonic language I have chosen. It needs to feel like one piece that fits together with itself, if you understand my meaning.

Making changes

I’m looking over the piece I had left Wednesday, and there’s this one phrase that’s just a little unsatisfactory. I’ve repeated a figure once where it shouldn’t have been, I decide, and I take out a couple of notes, and try to make it sound like I want by changing a few more. It also has the advantage of giving the brass player more time to breathe, and in this kind of demanding piece, I think the player will appreciate it.

But it’s tiring. Finally, I settle on a phrase that instead of ending on a high note, goes down a sixth, the landing note is the leading note, and I think it’s a lot more elegant. I love how it leads to the next phrase, which starts on the tonic of B minor, so the melody drops a major seventh from the last note in one phrase to the first in the next.

Finishing another piece

I’ve reached kind of a benchmark for the solo piece I’m working on. Today I write in the poetry so that it’s visible to the performer right after the cover page, and right before the notes of music start. It’s my intention that the performer should read it out loud before performing the piece.

I know I’ve gotten the ending phrase at least mostly the way I like it. I think more about the dynamics in the piece and write in all my hairpins, sforzandos, pianos, pianissimos, fortes, fortissimos, etc. that needed to be added and I’m tweaking a note or two. I add in another little phrase to extend and hopefully improve that key modulation I was working on yesterday, and let it rest a little.

I’m going to take tomorrow off and hit it fresh again after the holiday to see if there are other things I want to tweak before calling it done.

The connection between improvisation and composition

One of my most influential teachers in college was Christian Asplund. He taught me many things, being my teacher for fourth semester theory, beginning composition, and then he was my mentor for my capstone project (the composition part of it, I actually had another one for the theatre production part of the project, Rodger Sorensen). He also taught Group for Experimental Music (GEM), in which I participated in its first year, and later on, I was able to be a singer in an opera he had written and directed.

He encouraged thinking outside of what we had experienced before, and the pieces we performed with GEM were sometimes full of improvisation, and other times they had part improvisation. Usually at least part of the piece was up for interpretation, and whereas this is typical for all music, there was definitely more than the usual amount of interpretation in those pieces. He writes pieces called “Comprovisations” which means they were kind of compositions with large elements of improv in them.

This kind of thinking really helped me think about my writing in a new way. I had already been writing music for several years when I met Dr Asplund, but all that improvising together helped me discover that all music longs for form. It doesn’t have to be the same form every time, and it doesn’t have to be consistent, but even in improv, you want to recognize that you are going from one part to the next, and the most satisfying improvisations will feature a “going back to the beginning” or something similar.

When I’m writing today on the piece for a solo instrument, I’m feeling much like I’m back in the room with my colleagues in GEM, and I’m writing phrase after phrase, tweaking the first idea a little each time to make it move forward, and into a key change by switching one accidental at a time, repeating it and adding another so that it feels inevitable when we return to the original key. It is such a satisfying moment when I can write the opening phrases in the original key again, and while I don’t know exactly where it will end, as I’m expecting another minute of the song, I’m happy to have gotten to where I am today.

Putting a bit of yourself in the music

Listening to Schostakovich’s Symphony 7 makes you think he’s writing about the war, and the threat of the KGB, but abstractly enough that it’s hard to pin him on it. It is one of the most emotionally charged pieces I have listened to, in particular that has no lyrics.

When I wrote the trombone quartet I will take care of you, I had put a lot of thought into the music drama that I based the songs on that turned into movements. They had characters, they had feelings, and there were problems they were trying to solve.

As I’m working on a piece today, I’m writing in what I feel like the desperate crying of grief after losing a loved one. I can only hope that those who hear it will recognize it, as I believe this can be cathartic. Most people get hit by grief or loss at some point in their lives, and music can be very soothing.

Are you jealous of what someone else has accomplished?

As I’m writing my book today, I confess that there have been a few times when I felt jealous of other composers having their original operas performed. But when it comes to Mozart or Puccini I just feel kind of intimidated by the sheer volume of their output.

I’m still reading James Clear’s Atomic habits, and the quote I stick with today is this: “What’s the difference between the best athletes and everyone else? What do the really successful people do that most don’t?” Mr Clear is interviewing an elite coach, who mentions factors you might expect: genetics, luck, talent. “But then he said something I wasn’t expecting: ‘At some point it comes down to who can handle the boredom of training every day, doing the same lifts over and over and over.'” (p. 233)

Expect it to get boring sometimes, and plan for it to be ok anyway. Just keep going.

I again failed to bring my notebook to the gym where I’m working today, so I decide to just start a new score for a string quartet that doesn’t require my notes from the other day. I’ll think more about what I want to do with the piece, but I’ve written in an opening phrase for the two violins, and I have some ideas of rhythms, melodies, harmonies expressed in just those few measures. As I talked about the other day, really successful music pretty much always features lots of repetition, lots of themes with variations, and some development of ideas. Creating an idea isn’t that hard, it’s the rest that is the craft.

Hoping next week I’ll be able to get some more time into the two pieces I now have open for editing, but at least I plan on showing up, even if it’s just for a little bit. If I can find the time and energy, I’d like to write some more poetry to feed my music.

A bad day is better than no day

I’m reading James Clear’s Atomic Habits. He talks about the importance of showing up, even when you don’t feel like it. You do it because it is a part of your identity, that you are a person that doesn’t miss (his example is workouts, but I’m applying it to writing music).

It’s been a day full of working on house chores, and I am looking at my list of things to do. I have a task called “Write music.” It does not quantify how much, because I know that these days come sometimes, when I feel like I don’t have much time, and maybe not a ton of ideas to write in the amount of time I can scrounge up anyway.

But I write in three phrases, and I consider it a non-zero day, a day which despite not yielding lots of new notes, has still been a day when I showed up to my computer. I opened my software notation program, and I wrote in some new notes. I put in a key change.

Next time I know I’ll need to add in more variations on the theme. It should be fun. But as I explained a few days ago, the piece came with a huge wave of grief attached to it, and it is kind of heavy working on it. I’ll go play some Bruch or Telemann or Hummel or maybe just Christmas tunes to brighten my spirit.