Category Archives: Symphony

Audio files of my symphony

So for those who want to hear what a synthesized version of my symphony will sound like, here are some sound files. Let me know if your orchestra wants to play it!

As I’m still not sure whether the contact me form actually works, you can contact me over LinkedIn, Instagram, or Facebook.

Symphony #1 First movement
Second movement – Romance
Third movement – Un-even dance
Fourth movement

Final touches

I brought the printed out copy to rehearsal and I showed it briefly to a couple of friends. I guess I realized that I didn’t need to ask many questions anymore. I’m feeling comfortable with what I’ve learned so far, and I hope that a real orchestra will read it before too long. My contrabassist friend mentioned that they don’t really like solos, but I have this line that is letting them solo briefly in the piece. Well, they get to anyway.

This morning, I look through the printed copy. I make a mental note of a handful of things to take a closer look at. I noticed this part where the second violins cut out for two beats, and I was wondering if they should keep doubling the viola line right there, and decide to let them do that.

I also noticed that I had changed the pitch in the timpani sooner than I realized, and make a note for the timpani to change one of the pitches earlier in the piece. There is this fortissimo section, where the flutes were only at mezzoforte, so I give them fortissimo as well.

There was this place that looked unfinished. I had copied in a couple of string parts to the clarinets. And the second clarinet was playing higher than the first. That isn’t necessarily a problem, but it didn’t look right. So I went to work on that section. Now the first is playing higher, and I also added in some flute doublings, because they should be playing when it’s nearly tutti.

I look at the timpani some more. At first, I’m thinking, maybe I should add a fifth timpani to the mix. But that seems excessive, if it’s just for one note. So I work on the timpani part some more, and add in another tam-tam beat at the fortissimo section, and a triangle entrance that adds some zest.

I’m very pleased with the divisi violas from yesterday.

I can’t believe how hard it is to call it done. I feel like every time I look at it, I find another small problem with it. But I need to move on. It would be very fun to prepare the professional parts, with cues and everything. I know how helpful that must be for the timpani after 31 measures of rest, to know just what to listen for. It is for me as a violist, after a long rest, and I don’t usually get that many measures of rest. Sometimes there are no cue notes, and you have to infer from tempo changes, just count, or make notes yourself to know what to listen for.

So I go through it again. I’m second guessing the quick switch from snare drum to bass drum, and give the percussionist three more beats to switch. I decide to divide the violas one more time, just for a few notes, to make the string sound a little fuller, not so gaping between second violins and viola.

The competition I’m entering asks for program notes. So I take some time to describe what is happening in the movement. It’s pretty abstract, but I guess all this blogging about the orchestration and composition of this piece might have helped me know how to talk about what I’m doing.

That’s it for now. I’m not making any more changes unless an orchestra picks it up and there are obvious problems with something I wrote that I hadn’t addressed.

Looking through parts

A quick way to notices mistakes is by looking through each individual part. When I first started writing for orchestra (and voices) I wrote everything by hand. It was amazing when software extracted parts for me automatically. And even more amazing when the software made them dynamically, and if I made a change in the part, it automatically got changed in the score.

I start with flute 1. A little after rehearsal E, I see a missing dynamic. I go to the score, because if it’s missing in this part, it’s likely missing in other parts as well. I look at the section, and it appears I only missed to give the flutes a dynamic. I look at flute 2, and I’m wondering if the fortissimo continues after the four measure rest. It does. But then I see that the oboes were supposed to get to participate in the last couple of measures, and I had to forgotten to add them in. Actually, I wanted all the musicians in the orchestra to play the last couple of measures, in pianissimo, so I write in the horns and the trombones as well. It will be an interesting pianissimo, but I think it has its place.

Oboe 1. There is one suspicious omission of dynamics, but it’s a short rest, and I just add in the word “solo” in two places to help her or him know that it’s kind of exposed. I proceed to add in the same word for the clarinets and the tuba in their respective exposed parts. I’m looking over the clarinet part. I see what looks like a solo in the high register in mezzopiano, and I’m wondering if I’m serious about that dynamic. I go to the section, and see that for some reason, the second oboe cuts off before the other woodwinds. Why? No good reason, so I extend that note two beats. I experiment with extending the chord two more beats, but then the delicate clarinet gets kind of drowned out, so I undo that. I notice that I forgot to add in a slur at one point. Clarinet 2 gets added in several measures after the first, and I had forgotten to give them a fortissimo. I notice a similar problem in the second bassoon part.

I get to the second trombone part. I’m wondering if they’ll be frustrated that I didn’t give them more notes. I will listen through the piece and see if it looks like it’s missing a second trombone anywhere. I find this one part where a lot of the brass is playing, and I double the cello line in the second trombone, and add in a tuba octave doubling to the fourth horn. Listening in to check that they don’t drown out the bassoons. Adding in a doubling of the bassoon to the second trombone for that one gesture that seemed kind of lost once the tuba came in. Seeing as the notes are the same as the timpani has tuned to, I add in a doubling on the timpani.

I add in some more doublings in the ending part. The low brass is needed there. I add in a Glockenspiel doubling as well. It should pop now. I look back at the trombone parts now, and they look better.

Moving on to percussion. The timpani will have to retune two of the timpani one step or a half step, twice in the piece. They have plenty of time, so I hope they can do it. The percussion parts look ok. I see that the marimba might wonder at what dynamic level to start their diminuendo and add in a forte.

It’s time to look at string parts. The first violin has four pages of music. I’m looking at the bowings, and it’s pretty much what I had in mind. I guess I’ve looked at this part a lot in the score. I’m looking at the second violin part. One small section looks like I neglected to add in phrasing, and when I go to the score, it’s also missing for the viola part, and I fix it.

I look at the viola part, and for some reason, the missing phrase markings are more glaring here. I go to the score, and fix it for violins, viola, and cello all at once. There’s this suspicious part in the cello part, where no markings for phrasing or bowing are present. I go to the score, and I decide to change the notes just a little to better align with the rhythm right there. The phrasing follows.

Well, I think I must have given the contrabass part a lot of attention before, because it’s looking deliberate throughout.

Breaking for lunch.

I come back to it. I add in a cover page. I’m wondering what kind of subtitle to give it, I’m coming up blank so far. I look at the opening gesture, and decide to give the first trombone part to the second trombone part, and give the first a new part, a little higher, closer to the oboe’s melody. I decide to divide the violas in this one part where there is a big gap between violins and violas, and I want to fill it in more.

I think it’s time to print it out and maybe show it to a musician friend.

Today’s the day? Maybe

I’m starting where I left off. I’m at the percussion, last two pages. And I listen to the ending. Ugh, that chord progression and bass line together? I change a couple of notes in the contrabass, and double with the second bassoon and tuba. I like it better. It’s more definitive.

I continue to go through the symphony movement. I fix a few notes that ended up the wrong kind of dissonant in the clarinet part yesterday, add in an oboe doubling. Adding in more percussion, because with the new introductions of instruments, my palette of sounds has expanded and I can hear how the new ones (shaker, tam-tam, wood blocks) can fit in on occasion.

I keep going through, fixing slurs, dynamic markings that are obscured. There’s a few more articulations I add in. It’s getting very close to where I feel I can play it for my family for the first time.

Breaking for some baking. I play the piece for my family after adding in another couple of percussion lines/phrases.

As we listen to the piece, I decide I want to write some more notes for the viola. That leads to a few more notes for the rest of the string section as well. I give the woodwinds a diminuendo right when the horns are coming in to give them more space to be heard.

I’m feeling very close to abandoning the project. I fix a few more slurs so they aren’t obscuring the note underneath. It’s a strange sensation to stop working on such a big project. I’ll look at it some more tomorrow, and make sure I didn’t miss writing in dynamics for any parts, and other such easy misses.

More horn parts. And more clarinet lines. A trumpet rescue.

I start my composition today by just listening from the beginning and stopping when I notice that I could easily add in some more horn parts where I initially only had one. The melody passes from the first horn to the trumpet, and I decide to give the four horns some chords to play.

I continue listening through, finding where I need to add in some clarinet parts, some oboe lines, and a second flute line. The bass drum loses a few notes to give the measure two beats of just a little less thunder. I have this bassoon line that I want to support, and those clarinets get to help, and I also let the cello section pitch in.

I go to the ending, add in some clarinet doublings to the trumpets, let the tuba double the second bassoon. Adding in a few accents for the marimba. I get back, add in more clarinet parts. Seems like a clarinet kind of day. Like it’s the solution to a lot of problems. Another time, the first trumpet comes to the rescue, when I feel like I need a gesture to repeat once more in the first part of the movement.

Back at it in the evening. I see that the strings need some slurs to denote what kind of phrasing I’m after. I’m keeping it simple for now, it’s mostly tying sixteenth notes together for switching bows each beat. There are times for more complicated bowings, and I have them already defined. Some trill notations look really bad and I clean them up. I add in a second trumpet to the aforementioned trumpet rescue. There are a number of other woodwind additions I fit in.

I add in a couple of more percussion instruments that suit the quiet part better. I make note that I need a few more percussion lines in the last two pages.

Final week of symphony polishing

I start the morning’s composition session by looking at what I wrote Friday. I see that I then thought the shape was about right, and that it mostly needed detail work.

I listen through the ending. I feel content with the transition from B minor to C major. The ending feels like the timing is about right, but it definitely needs more orchestration doublings, maybe some other figures in the winds and brass and percussion.

I listen through the entire movement. I make a note of a trumpet part that needs a note fixed, I see a second clarinet part that totally looks incomplete, like I wrote one note and somebody interrupted me. And from page 20 on, I know I need to look through the orchestra and add in lots of doublings and more figures because it’s basically string orchestra only, and it needs to be a tutti section, more or less.

Where I had written a contrabass solo, the melody doesn’t come through well, and I’m thinking I might double them with cellos. I try it, and realize the cellos will totally overpower the basses. I give the tuba a lower dynamic, and give the contrabasses a fortissimo, and maybe it will work now.

I make the second clarinet part a little longer so he or she can stay on that trill for ten beats instead of four. I start working on the second flute part in that section. It’s definitely fuller and more complete.

The string orchestra section that is supposed to be tutti is first supplemented by a triangle part. A few measures later, I write in two flute parts, an oboe part, a clarinet, and a bassoon part. Even though the figure of the section is familiar, the new-ish bassoon part is the one that stands out as most melodious. I decide to double the gist of the line with trombones, add in some trumpets after that, and it just continues to flow with more brass parts. I know I’ll need some shimmering flutes to double the shimmering violins in the next few measures. But the trumpets have gotten to the end of the piece, which is very exciting.

I add in the timpani, cymbals. I listen through the piece again. Wondering if it’s any good. Making notes of adding in some punctuating horns, possibly a viola part, and a marimba. And then I don’t know what to do. So I’ll break for lunch soon. But first, I try to do the ideas I wrote down. It’s a good stopping point.

It’s concert day, and time for my viola to get a sound check, so I spend the rest of my day taking care of my instrument, warming up, playing through the most difficult parts of the orchestra pieces, and drive my daughter to climbing practice, drop her off and head straight to call time for the orchestra concert.

Orchestra concert is fun. It’s a new venue, and at our preconcert practice I can hardly hear most of the orchestra. I just hope we sound together. I sit close to the cellos this time, but when the concert is going on, I can hear most of the sounds I’m supposed to. It’s surprisingly well-balanced, and it’s a lot of fun. I think my favorite part of the program is Danse Macabre by Camille Saint-Saëns. Because it’s the last on the program, it’s easy to have the melody linger in the mind after the concert is over.

Playing the Imperial March this time, the trombones are glorious, and I am basking in the fun accompaniment that the violas participate in. Our conductor has some weird Star wars helmet on which brings a kind of gravity to the piece.

It’s my first time performing Peter and the Wolf (by Sergei Prokofiev). It is kind of an odd piece, that has lots of little parts. I think my favorite part is when the duck is swimming in the water. If you’ve heard this piece, you may remember that it’s the oboe that plays the duck theme. The violas accompany in divisi, meaning there are two viola parts and we split.

I know I’ll try and finish the orchestration either tomorrow or the next day. I might have time to also go over all the bowings and phrasing for the strings.

More thoughts on writing a symphony, part writing, etc.

I ended up getting in another fifteen minutes last night and I worked on making the orchestration shimmer with some more woodwind parts.

Today when I pick up work on the symphony I’m thinking more about the clarinet line. There was this section where I had two bassoons playing, and it seemed a little bare. So I put in two clarinet parts and a flute part, and it’s more complete. I’m finding that I’m very pleased with the string parts I worked on yesterday, but second guessing the ending again.

I settle on changing the viola part at the end, which easily lends itself to another five measures of closure (I’m hoping it’s actually the end, because the piece is over seven minutes now), and I pump out a second violin part and a cello part to harmonize and play with the viola line. I’ve got to listen through the entire piece to see if I feel content with the way it ends.

I go to clear my head, walking outside, visiting a neighbor for a little while. Listening through the piece, I conclude: It’s probably not the end after all. It’s not definitive enough. Breaking for lunch. Adding in one more measure, extending the wrap-up. Adding in another measure at the previous transition, and the key change is more satisfying now.

I go back to the beginning of the last section, and start filling in contrabass and cello parts. What kind of accompaniment figure/bass line should they get? Well, after writing a piece that runs about 24-28 minutes, I think I have an idea of what figures will feel like they belong in the piece. It is not time to introduce lots of new material. It is time to wrap up, and we want to hear something that sounds like the ideas already introduced to the piece.

I’m reflecting on my first exercises in my first arranging and composition class as a junior in high school (Södra Latins gymnasium, Stockholm, Sweden). I think I wrote some songs, that were more like vocalises, and I was supposed to write a harmony part, so it was two-part harmony. I think a group of my classmates and I sang it together, and I think we performed it in some obscure venue that I have since forgotten. When I took my first composition class in college, with Dr Christian Asplund, one of our first assignments was to write a duet for flute and oboe. You can hear my piece, “A play for two“, right at the top of the page titled “Woodwinds.” It is a very basic skill to master as a composer. You want to be able to find a harmonizing line that stands alone. I find that much of what I do when I work on my symphony reaches that far back into my training, and I think of independency of lines, of what harmonies I want to hear, and it extends to a third part, and a fourth part. The more parts you introduce, the more doubling you will need to introduce, so you don’t end up with a total piece of mud cake.

I come back some hours later, and I fix this and that. Some articulation here, adding a second trombone to a particular line to give more volume when that sounded a little thin against a full string section and woodwinds. I add in dynamics where I notice some missing. I’m wondering if I should add in the violas at rehearsal E or just let the violins take care of the accompaniment to the soft woodwinds. Should I add any percussion in that section? I’ll probably spend some time thinking about soft options for percussion next time I have some time to poke around. Hmm…

I know I’ll need to look through each individual part to look for any anomalies that I may have overlooked while working on the score. More missing dynamics, phrasing, articulation. I’m happy to leave the project for tonight fairly confident that most of the shaping of the movement has been done.

Another non-zero day

I wrote some more on a first violin part I had started another day. I continued the idea I had stopped on yesterday, and was able to get to the “actual end” of the movement. I added in a tuba line to accompany a contrabass solo line. I gave a few more notes to the snare drum, and took one away from the bass drum to allow for a quick switch.

I added in some more slurs to help with phrasing. I added in some dynamics where that was missing.

As I was making lunch, I had the thought to maybe cut out part of a timpani line I wrote the other day that didn’t seem to fit.

I listened to Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra. With the Chicago symphony, and then LA Philharmonic. I was struck by how many intense notes the upper strings had. Wow, that’s a lot of notes to play. I was reminded how talented the orchestra musicians usually are, and that I ought to try and give them a small challenge.

Refreshed after lunch, I set to put in a second violin part to sustain the firsts, and then a viola part. Wondering if my key change is working or what I should do about it. Is all I’ve written over the past eighteen measures an accompaniment or does it hold its own? It’s interesting to see the work unfold.

Leaving the computer to clear my head. Coming back, and adding in a measure to improve the key change transition, continuing work on the viola part. Changing the ending note to a whole note instead of two half notes. I want to bask in the glory of the high strings in a C major chord just a couple of more beats. Seeing that a section really calls for a marcato and adding in the marking to clarify for the orchestra members.

Wondering if the parts that I think are very emotional will speak to anybody that hears it.

Tweaking the timpani part to take out the offending notes. Adding in a snare drum part to a quiet woodwind solo for an accompaniment. Changing the ending note one more time, to let us rest in the chord before the bass comes in. Found a spot where I want the oboes to fill in the texture of flutes, clarinets, strings, and percussion, wrote some notes for them, doubling some string parts. It’s more satisfying now.

Taking a break again. We’ll see if I get back to writing later or if that’s it for today.

Just another day in composing paradise.

How to think about a symphony

I was about nine years old, and I listened to symphonic music on the radio, and I knew I loved that sound. It took me long enough, but I am in a position now where I get to play in a symphony orchestra at least once a week, often twice. I love sitting in the middle, where the violas usually are placed. Sometimes I sit in front of the oboes, sometimes the flutes, there was another time when I sat in front of the snare drum and the rest of the percussion section. There are often either second violins or cellos to my side, depending on what chair I have in that concert. On occasion, it’s the harp that’s on my side.

As a violist, I get to see my own part, and I get a feel for how much in a symphony I play. For our Halloween concert with American Fork Symphony, we’re playing The Imperial March from Star Wars. You all might know that it has a very strong feature of trombones, one of my favorite instruments ever – what a glorious sound! – and yet, because I’m playing the accompaniment, which is really intense, I am focusing most of my attention on the accompaniment, and that is as it should be.

As a composer, I write down my idea for how the music is growing from one idea to the next. It is usually based on what will the melody be, who is playing it, and who takes over when I want a different sound.

However, sometimes, I just have an idea for a cool accompaniment figure that I want to explore. The melody grows after I’ve come up with the accompaniment texture, the rhythm, and the bass line. Or I decide that the bassoon, tuba, or contrabass is taking the melody, so the accompaniment needs to be in the higher register to not conflict with it.

And then it’s endings. How do you know that a piece is over? It can be kind of difficult, until the orchestra stops playing for long enough that you know they aren’t starting up again. Case in point: Beethoven’s 5th symphony. Listen to the fourth and final movement, and tell me that you weren’t surprised at least once that the piece wasn’t over yet. There’s something about the cadence, we kind of expect it to be over when everything is tied to a unison or an acceleration of texture and rhythm. Or it could be really quiet, and the Italian word for this is morendo, dying. The sound dies slowly and you know it’s over because you had time to adjust to the quiet.

If you’ve read some of my other posts or talked to me lately, you may be aware that I’m currently finishing up my first symphony. It’s the fourth movement. I thought, I’ll aim for about 6-7 minutes in length. But then this section with the horns chasing the melody and then the strings joining in, and I had this fabulous ending landing in my lap. The problem: I was only about 5 minutes in. The piece was too short. So I decided to give a recapitulation nod to Beethoven, and let the oboes come in with the first theme in a new key. So fun! Let’s see where that leads. I haven’t completed it yet, but I’m aiming for next week.

Another thing I’ve had fun with the past few days is adding in the spice of percussion. I had started out the movement with timpani and marimba, but I’m writing the piece including two more percussionists, which means I have access to more spice. A snare drum is excellent to emphasize the rhythmic figures of the orchestra, and cymbals can accent the beats really well when that is what you need. A triangle has a delicate but still penetrating sound and is a nice addition to my accompaniment idea. Etc. One of the biggest instruments is a bass drum, and the thunderous sound is sometimes exactly what you are looking for.

In a brief interaction with one of the percussionists, I confirmed that a marimba player can easily have several instruments in front of him or her, and therefore, I wrote a Glockenspiel part. I think about the Glock a little like a piccolo. It’s extremely high pitched, and it’s kind of like icing on the orchestra, and if you have access to it, you’re just excited.

Thanks for reading! Feel free to reply (click on “Leave a reply” at the top of the post), and I look forward to talking more about orchestra music next time.

Composing every day

I have been working on my first symphony since April. The first movement took about a month to complete. The second went a little bit faster, and I felt so pumped. I started working on the third movement, and I decided to go for a faster tempo, it being subtitled Un-even dance. With the faster tempo, I can fit a lot more notes in! It took about three months to finish. (I also wrote a song for SSA, viola, and piano during that time).

I showed my finished draft to my friend yesterday, and I decided to make a couple of changes after that. I’m pretty happy with how it turned out.

I also played in a concert last night. One of the pieces was Mjölnir, by Lucas Garner. When I was listening to Tracy Furr playing as the soloist, I realized that I wanted to start off the fourth and concluding movement featuring the timpani. And I also was reflecting on how many notes the violins play in a concert. Thousands, probably. So I decided I wanted to add a lot more notes, to showcase how agile and lovely the violins can sound.

And so it goes on. One treasured comment from a friend, a musical experience, and a dedication to hit the computer even if I don’t know exactly what I’m going to do. I just start writing something, and one thing leads to another… and hopefully before too long the symphony will be completed.