Tag Archives: Bartók

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.

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.