Tag Archives: Christian Asplund

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.

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.

Writing for an unaccompanied solo instrument

How do you write a piece for an unaccompanied solo instrument? One of the important things to note early on is the range of the particular instrument. Often it makes a big difference in the difficulty of the piece if you let the player play in the extremes of the register. So with that said, keep in mind your performer! Are you writing for a beginner, an intermediate player, an advanced player, or a professional? Can you throw them anything, and do you want to make it a difficult piece, or would you like it to be simple enough that somebody sight-reads it, and can make beautiful music out of it from the start?

You have to think of a melody, and a harmonic progression, even if there are no chords being played, they come through within the melody.

I listened to some TheFatRat pieces on the drive up to climbing practice today. There is a tremendous amount of repetition in pretty much any popular music. It can still be interesting because they introduce new things to vary it a little bit. They change the timbre, take away or add different instruments, distortions, etc. Here’s Monody, featuring Laura Brehm, that has lots of repetition but enough variation to make it interesting.

But when you have just one instrument – you have to think about variation a little differently. You can’t change the instrument – but you can give them a mute, which totally changes the sound. In the case of a string instrument, you can switch to plucking instead of bowing. In a lot of cases you can change from legato to staccato. You can vary the rhythm somewhat. Change from simple to compound meter or the other way around, or change from 4/4 to 7/8 by cutting out an eighth note wherever you choose. You can make octave displacements. I’ll expand on this some below.

One of my cherished memories from my second year at Brigham Young University was when I was thinking that I would like to be a part of the Group for New Music. I had just taken the last class in the music theory core, which included studying the Second Viennese School, including Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern. I absolutely LOVED the song “Wie bin ich froh” by Anton Webern. It has lots of octave displacements. If you listen to it, you will hear lots of ninths, sevenths, that the soprano has to sing. It’s a bit challenging, but also interesting. The reason I say octave displacements is because a song is often comprised of lots of stepwise motion, not lots of skips. This song has stepwise motion, but they are octave displaced, which makes very unusual skips.

When I spoke to Dr Christian Asplund about joining the Group for New Music, he informed me that I could just learn that song and then sing it for Dr Steven Ricks, who was over that group then. So I did. I learned it, and sang it, and he rounded up two other singers to perform the second and third songs from that same set at the concert that November.

Another thing to study could be a cadenza from a concerto. As I’m writing this, I’m listening to the F.A. Hoffmeister Viola concerto, movement 1 (for another performer, playing with an orchestra), and he’s just gotten to the cadenza. It’s not very long, but you can hear the harmonic progression in the solo instrument. You can hear how the violist gets to showcase several parts of the range, and there is a theme with development, so you feel like it’s the same piece, but not just the same thing again and again.

I was going to write more on the piece I had in my head Saturday night, but the problem is I left my notebook at home, and I’m sitting at a car dealership charging my EV. I probably will ruin the piece if I try to write without my notes. I had the piece all figured out, but I haven’t copied it all down into my software yet.