Tag Archives: String quartets

String quartet practice yields inspiration, and better recordings too!

We had initially planned on practicing a month ago, but it was hard to get our schedules to match up and we finally met up last night. I had added a new ending to the fourth and final movement “Fast and Furious”, which we tried out. Several of us had not been playing very much for several weeks, and I was a little worried about how it would go. But I was very happy with our rehearsal, and I think we might be able to record it in the next few months.

As usual, playing music I write is often a springboard for more inspiration to write, and I decided last night to start on another string quartet. I mean, I’ve got to keep writing to improve my craft, and a string quartet is a lot less demanding to get performed than an entire symphony.

So today I opened up my laptop to actually do something else, but the last thing I had opened was my first string quartet, and I decided to just go for it. I had spent some time today just relaxing and trying to figure out what I was going to write, but hadn’t really gotten any strokes of inspiration. From experience, I know that it seldom comes that way anyway, so I wasn’t too worried.

I made a “New score”, selected the instrumentation, made choice of tempo and key signature (atonal for simplicity), and called it simply “String Quartet #2” and then I had this one idea. Just a small gesture. And as you know, a small gesture is often all it takes for a piece to get started. Now I have three phrases, and I have started. That is a good feeling, because often the first step can be daunting.

Symphony sounds

My nephew Joschija Oelkrug also writes music, and he helped me get a better sound recording of my symphony. I listened to the new audio files this morning, and though I have been through some discouragement the past few months, I realized that I was quite pleased with how that symphony turned out, and I really hope that it gets played before too long. I will upload the new files here in another post in the next few days so you can all hear it with the better sound. I especially loved the way the piccolo and flute sound in it. Not to mention the clarinets. So much better.

Spitting out notes

Yesterday it was exciting to try out the pieces I had written. I toy with the idea to not write anymore on the fourth movement, mostly because I feel tired and want to work on a new project, but ultimately, I listen through the entire piece, and then just the “ending” of where I had left off. Suddenly I hear in my mind a cello line! That’s what I needed to get started. So I start writing the cello line. Then I have an idea of how to add a viola to it, but before too long, I know more of how the cello continues.

And I go back, and the second violin part makes itself known, and now I’m just wondering how the first violin part will present itself, and then I’ll have to finish the viola line that is gaping with its unfinished-ness. There’s this part I really like in the second violin part, and I’m thinking of how to extend it into the other parts. I have lots of staccato eighth notes in this movement. So that is kind of the default articulation, and anything outside of that sounds like melody.

You may have heard uncounted piano accompaniments that sound like arpeggios without end. Yes, if you’ve heard a lot of popular accompaniments on the piano, it is typical for the piano. It doesn’t really stand out that much anymore. I’m thinking now of Gounod’s Ave Maria, which is written to Bach’s Prelude in C major from the Well tempered Klavier. It is a lovely piece on its own. I also think that it has inspired a lot of people to try and write the same kind of accompaniment to any kind of inane melody they come up with.

My point today is that an accompaniment doesn’t have to mimic this style of arpeggiated chords going and going and going and going like Bach (nothing against Bach! See my post yesterday). You can pick a different style, and listen to some Bartók for inspiration! Also, my second point is that the accompaniment in itself can be worth putting a lot of effort into. It shouldn’t come as an afterthought. Include it in the entire composition. I’ve said it before: the melody informs the harmony, but it also goes the other way, so the harmony makes a framework for the melody to dance in. Just like in jazz, where you have a bass line, and then improvise on top of that, you can write an accompaniment, and improvise on top of that. Composition is typically one person writing all the parts in advance, but it really has a lot in common with improvisation. You come up with one thing, and then the next, and then the next. It is too difficult to keep the entire piece in one’s mind all at once, and if you can keep just an idea in your mind, and then develop that, it is good enough.

So I am happy to have spat out a few more notes into my piece, and I’m hoping that I can write enough notes to make it feel complete before too long. I’ve got to start on the next project really soon, and I struggle with multi-tasking. I might have to start on it before completing this one though. I’ll tell you how it goes.

Different versions??

As I worked some more on the fourth movement today, I realized that three weeks ago, I had diverted from the original score, and had kept working on a backup version by accident. So that was interesting. Thankfully, I had not kept writing on the original score, so the backup version works out, and now that I have renamed it, it’s easier to find in my file system.

(I guess there had been a glitch in my system, so that when Windows suggested what file to pull up when I typed in “sib” for Sibelius, it didn’t pull up the original file, but a backup one instead.)

I decide to listen to the other movements to see how I’m faring with getting a “fast and furious” ending to the string quartet. I’m wondering how long to write it. At a quarter note equals 120, you have to fit in an awful lot of eighth notes or sixteenth notes to fill say, seven minutes. I don’t count them, because what’s the point? I don’t know if I want seven minutes even. It’s not quite three minutes long, and it’s taken me a long time to get even that far.

As I was studying what I had written so far, I realized that I had kept the violins pretty low for most of the movement. Not even getting on the E string hardly at all. So I worked in some higher notes in the next little bit of music. I also noticed that the theme in the fourth movement really sounds like a part of the first movement in particular, and that makes me happy.

I am excited about tonight, because we’re going to try and read the first three movements as a string quartet. So maybe my time would be better spent just practicing and warming up instead of writing more notes, since it’s highly unlikely I could finish the piece tonight anyway. I push through and write in the cello part where I kind of know what to do and then I decide to just print it off even if it’s unfinished. Or is it? It’s an interesting question that deserves more time, but in any case, I think it’s better to present nearly three minutes of music and say you may get more later, than to not give it out with the excuse that it isn’t done.

As a student of composition, my works often went through a couple of iterations of reading before completion. You learn invaluable things by letting a performer try it out.

Perhaps I’ll know what to do with the rest of the last movement after playing what I have so far with my quartet friends.

What about some pizzicato?

I started on this kind of contrapuntal line in the second violin last time, without giving it backing from the other instruments, and I realized when I got back to it today, that I wanted it to really stand out. So I actually give the first violin a few measures rest, and I decide to give the viola and cello an accompanying line that is plucked instead of bowed. This means that the line will really come out. I remember studying 18th century counterpoint and especially Bach’s inventions and fugues, and I try to imitate his style a little bit when I write the next line, which I give to the first violin.

It’s always fascinating to try and pin a stroke of inspiration on what’s going on. Easter just happened, and I was part of a women’s choir that sang “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” (which was written by Bach), so the Bach-ian lines are pretty fresh in my mind from singing that piece. But since Bach is one of the ostensibly most accomplished composers of all time, I don’t feel like it can ever be wrong to get inspiration from his music. One of the many things I admire about him is his sheer size of work he left behind. He wrote so much music. His music also typically really sounds like his own, which means that he refined his own musical language in all the pieces he wrote. He has this lovely way with working from one chord to the next, and it feels like it fits, and you come to expect it a certain way. One of the things we probably all like to hear in music is some kind of predictability, and also some surprising elements. So a piece that starts out with inspiration from Philip Glass, and continues with inspiration from J. S. Bach, I hope will still sound like my music to the listener.

So after the first violin finishes the answer to the first line, the viola gets the response. I have to go now, but I’ll probably let the cello answer to that line, and then let them all play something together, which sounds like it belongs, with the right blend of anticipation and surprising elements.

The discipline to write

I think I must have written about this before. Sometimes you just don’t feel super excited to write, but the piece has to get written anyway. And the case right now is that I’ve written three movements, and I’ve commenced on the fourth and final movement. It’s not hard to fill in more notes to keep the ideas going, and to weave in the previous movements’ themes. It does require a good amount of focus, and I know it will be hard if I’m interrupted a lot while I’m working on it.

When I pull up the score today, I decide to start with a cello line, and I write what I think will be a good bass line. Then I add in the viola line, and next the second violin line, and last of all the first violin line. It is really interesting to me, that even though the top line typically will sound like the melody, that all the harmony underneath really supports that line, and while I could write a few different versions of the top line, it is quite constrained by all the other lines. The counterpoint in a string quartet is one of the most compelling reasons to write a string quartet. You try to give all the parts interesting lines to play, that lets them give the line to one another, and it’s best if all the lines will feel melodic and connected.

Once I’ve gotten to the end of that small section, I decide to lead with the first violin instead. I’m keeping in mind the idea I had early on with this piece, which is harmonic rhythm, that I let that be one of the things I focus on. Not switching harmony too often, or if I switch, it’s a smaller switch, where maybe just one note changes instead of the entire tetrachord (four notes that form a harmony, as opposed to a trichord, which is what you find in a major or minor chord, and with four notes, you’d often have doublings). There’s this one part where I notice that a measure is a beat shorter than the surrounding ones, and I make a 3/4 measure in the middle of the 4/4 piece. I see that often in the music I read, and it’s just part of what makes the music more interesting.

I finish that part, and I hear in my head a cello line, so I start with that next. Sadly, the kids are playing really noisy music toys upstairs, and I don’t know if I can keep the music straight from what I’m writing. It’s definitely the wrong key, and it just doesn’t fit. I think I’ll get back to this tomorrow. I conclude that I’ve added another 25-40 (depends on how you count) seconds of music, and decide to be content with my progress.

The aesthetic of a Largo (or other slow movement)

A year or two ago, the orchestra I played with played Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. I think it’s not surprising that the piece is popular and played frequently. It is really beautiful. It has its challenges, but it wasn’t too difficult with some practice to get it reasonably performable.

I guess I just started on the Largo one week ago, and I have only taken three sessions to work on it. I’m pretty happy with how those 44 measures turned out. At such a slow tempo, it really is more up to the performers to make it beautiful, but I have attempted to write in lovely harmonies, interesting counterpoint, and fairly straightforward articulation. I look forward to trying it out with some friends before too long.

One thing I did more this time around than I have before is voice crossings, which means that a lower voice plays higher than a voice above it. For example, the second violin has an ascending line, which crosses the first violin’s line, or the viola skips above the second violin. I also have the viola and the second violin playing the lowest note (at different times), instead of the cello, a few times in this movement. The voice leading demands it. It will be interesting to hear how that turns out. I have a few times where two instruments temporarily play the same note, and I am curious to hear how that turns out.

The one thing I don’t have now, that could be good to write in, if I decide to add to it, is a section where the violins play “in the stratosphere” or in the extreme high register. I don’t know if I want to though, and I’ll revisit that idea tomorrow.

I anticipate that the fourth and final movement will take significantly more hours to write. Typically, a fourth movement will be a fast and sometimes furious movement. Anytime you have to write more notes, it just takes longer.

What is a third movement?

Basically, as a composer, you can do what you feel that the music demands. At the same time, it can be extremely helpful to call on tradition to help make it more understandable to the audience.

I do not have extensive experience playing string quartets. My musical schooling was honed primarily in choirs. So my language has been deeply affected by this – which means that the vocal line is something I treasure even in instrumental playing. Like I mentioned in a previous post, the Prokofiev piano concerto no 3 has a very lyrical part in the middle of the third movement, which although it was a little difficult because it was as some say “up in the stratosphere”, it was so beautiful, and ended up being one of my favorite sections of the piece. It is also a line that reminds me of vocal writing, something you’d like to hum or sing, which can’t be said for many other string lines… some can be very disjointed and extremely challenging to sing.

The first movement I wrote ended up deeply affected by Felix Mendelssohn’s style, with the type of counterpoint that he likes using, even though I use my own harmonic and melodic language which is a lot more inclusive of all sorts of accidentals and at times sounds a bit atonal. For the second movement I decided to constrain myself to a waltz form, with the repeats traditional to that form. I was going for a piece that people would like to get up and dance to, at least after they got used to it.

So today when I sit down with some time on my hands to write more notes, I just google “third movement string quartet” and see that I have already broken tradition. Typically the second movement is a slow movement, but the third is a dance, like a menuett and trio. Now I have already written the dance movement and see that my challenge ought to be to write a slow, lyrical piece, that still feels like it is a part of the other two movements completed.

I’m thinking about how impatient I can sometimes be. How many notes I want to fit in, and how often when I’m sitting in orchestra, I’m actually having to count rests. Yes, this is a string quartet, but I don’t have to rush it. My challenge with this piece is to slow down. The harmonic changes will be slower. The piece will be perhaps more tonal as a result. I’m going to keep doublings to few in number, so that the harmonies can stay more interesting. I’m writing a Largo, which means that each note just takes more time, right now at a quarter note equals 56, which may change slightly. As I often don’t know, I also this time don’t know how long the piece will be, but trust that it will become apparent when it’s done.

And maybe at some point, I will change the order so that the Largo will be the second movement. I’ll decide that later.

Writing a waltz

Yesterday I was able to find about fifteen minutes to write. There were about fourteen measures that I had only a violin part on, so I filled in parts to complete the quartet on those.

Today I’m torn between constant requests to help with this or that when I sit down, but I actually said I can’t help because I’m in the middle of something. It doesn’t take long to write down the next thing, but after listening for 1,5 minutes until I get to the place I’m going to work on, I have the idea for the continuing flow, and write in a couple of more phrases. If I’m interrupted at that moment though, it’s kind of frustrating, because I may be kind of lost in the piece, and not know where to pick up unless I go through the process of listening at least to part of it again. Writing in the parts is similar, but like I wrote a different day, the harmony is implied in the melody, and therefore is easier to figure out. I know what kind of intervals I’m working with most of the time. I know that I dislike a lot of doublings. So it follows that it’s not that complicated to write in the next thing.

I’m afraid that because I don’t work on it every day, that it’s going to be too disjointed. I need to make more regular progress on this piece. I don’t know how long it will be, but a common waltz lasts maybe 2-4 minutes, so I guess somewhere in that span is ok. And repeats are common. I already have one written in. There should probably be another one. And if I’m true to form, you could repeat the whole piece again after the two parts. And if you’re really feeling it, you can repeat it three times. That would be the style for a folk-dance waltz in Sweden at least as I know it from my time in Umeå.

I’ve got 63 measures now, but each half (37 and 26, in case you’re wondering what halves I’m talking about…) is repeated, so it’s really 126. And then the idea would be to play it twice (or three times).

And just like that, the waltz is done. I guess I need to figure out what the third movement should be called, and what kind of character I want it to have. And print off or send the parts to my string player friends.

Repeating figures, counting, and waltzes

It’s been a week, and I haven’t even tried to write anything more. However, I’ve been really good about trying to learn the orchestra music for our next concert. Since I figured out that I didn’t have to practice everything at once, and that if I can carve out at least four practice days a week, it is not that hard to at least play every note once between rehearsals. I’m even practicing the counting (not the long rests, only to feel where in the measure my notes fall, and the figures within the measures I play).

There are many times in orchestra when you’re given a ton of notes to play repeatedly. You get a figure that has three, or six, or four notes to it. There is this one part of the Saint-Saens Harp concerto that I was working on, where we play in 3/8 meter, and you have to feel three to a beat. It’s not bad to practice that feel. I think it will get easier the more I do it, and since I don’t have that many years of orchestra practice, I try to make up for it in my practice room. In the Grieg piano concerto, there are parts where you have to feel six or four to a beat, and it switches every now and then. (Here’s a link if you’re interested in going to TSO’s next concert!)

Six is a little bit tricky. I like to think one-and-two-and-three-and, etc., because it is fast enough that if I can count every other one, I feel like that is better. My brain can’t count fast enough otherwise.

I do have a few minutes to write today, and I am thinking about whether I should incorporate a repeat somehow, or if I want it to be more rhapsodic. Seeing as it is a waltz, and how repetitive they usually are, I am leaning towards finding a good spot to repeat. When I was warming up for practice yesterday, I was playing my old Vals från Rundvik, and I was reminded of how important the repeating figure was to the success of the piece.

It’s not that hard to keep writing in the same style, and I find that the viola part flows into place with not much effort. I have found some gestures that I rewrite in different ways. I similarly add in the cello part, and in some strange way find that 37 measures marks the repeat point. I doubt anybody can do a dance that works out great to that kind of prime number. Seriously. But maybe it’s not a dance piece, even though it pretends to be.

Let me know, if you’re a dancer, how it works if it doesn’t add up to a good number, how does the dancing turn out? I always thought it should add up to 8 or 16 or something like that. And here I am. If I have to, I suppose I could try and fix it so it adds to 40 before the repeat. I don’t think it will go down to 32.

Articulation, and what it does to a dance

As I’ve said previously, it’s been intimidating to write a second movement to my string quartet. I wasn’t sure if I loved what I had so far, and I was kind of second guessing myself.

Today’s workplace happened to be outside a classroom where they were learning ballroom dance. I have my headphones on, but they do not cancel the noise outside, and I find myself in the waltz mode a little more easily because of the ambient music.

I look at the piece I’m working on, and realize that what I need is some more clear articulations to help the string players play the right kind of lightness. A waltz cannot be played heavily. It just doesn’t work right. You want it to kind of float. So despite all the more or less dissonant melodic material, harmonized into what I think sounds right, but maybe isn’t the typical Johann Strauss Jr kind of harmony, if you know what I mean, I am really attempting to write a “light” atonal waltz. It’s a fun challenge, and after adding in the articulation, I find that the viola part isn’t hard to write at all. (I had left off the piece with gaps in the middle parts, so next will be some work on a second violin part).

However, the dance class switched and they are playing something Latin inspired, and the rhythm doesn’t work at all with what I’m doing now. I have a hard time finding flow, and I hope to get back to writing later today.