Tag Archives: Key changes

Getting back into writing notes

I got so sick a couple of weeks ago, that at first I was just lying around sleeping with a fever. As I started to recover, I had very few thoughts on writing music, it being Christmas and I had some other responsibilities associated with that (a little for the music program at church, and trying to make it a meaningful time for the family by cooking some special dishes for our dinner, trying to figure out decorations and gifts).

There had been a difficulty for the choir at one of the key changes for Angels we have heard on high, and I added some notes for the clarinet and the alto saxophone to clarify the key change. It was simple and worked.

But today I feel the itch of writing more. I remembered exactly what I had been thinking last time, probably in part because I kept a record here on this blog. I just listened through what I had so far, and then I wrote a part for the first violin, and then one for the second violin. They are rhythmically unison which makes it easy, in some ways. I know that if I keep the same interval between them, they cease to be independent, so I try to vary the distance a little bit, and add in a little bit of contrary motion. But the idea here is high and kind of ethereal, and I don’t want any quick moves.

I add in a viola part, and I start working on a cello part but the library is closing so I’ll have to pick it up later.

About different modes in music

As I mentioned last time, there were gaps in the piece as I left it, and I start by writing in a second violin part, that extends past what I wrote last. Somehow, it seems to ask for a key change, at least temporarily, rather than a change of mood. So I’m ending up with a different tonal center for a little while.

Let’s talk about keys and tonal centers a little bit. I was in high school when I first learned about different modes. I found them very interesting to work with. I actually employed a few different modes in my first opera writing. I started out very traditional in a mostly Dorian B-minor, but I wrote a part for the soprano to sing in Phrygian mode, and later on, a song for the mezzosoprano in Lydian mode. This way, I could keep the key signature, but just change the tonal center, and I liked the way it turned out.

There are certain harmonies that I tend to favor. I really like four-note harmonies, which means I don’t double many notes in the string quartet. So I’ll add a sixth or a seventh or something to fill out the trichords that are so common. One of my favorite trichords is the augmented one. It’s so mysterious! I also like the diminished trichord, and you can easily make it a diminished seventh when you add the fourth note.

This is kind of hard to express in just words. If you know what I am talking about when I talk about different modes, the best way to learn more is by just experimenting. You can listen to Tavasz (It means Spring in Hungarian) by Béla Bártok. It starts with a melody with a high fourth, just like in the Lydian mode. Maybe this is one reason his music resonates so much with me. The modes are different enough from the common practice era to make me sharpen my ear, but still really beautiful.

I just keep writing more notes on the string quartet, and suddenly I write a cello line that sounds like it could be the ending of a movement. What in the world? I thought the piece would be longer. The movement might be nearly done but my brain is spent. I’ll get back to it tomorrow and see what happens. The piece is close to five minutes of peppy music, and maybe the contrast I was looking for will just appear in the second movement. I think I’ll go for a slow, sweet style.

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.

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.