Tag Archives: String quartets

More on counterpoint

Picking up the string quartet again. I’m listening through what I wrote last time, and I’m adding in a crescendo where it seems obvious I ought to. I add in some slurs where I hadn’t gotten to that earlier. Then it’s time to write another part of the first violin part. True to form, I write on that part until I’ve extended past the end of the last cello line. I put in a rehearsal mark to assist with rehearsals.

And I do something similar with the second violin part. Rests here and there add to the interest of the piece. Trills give you a break from the melodic line. Changing the articulation helps show that it’s a new part. (I’m talking about a staccato section for all the strings at the same time. But it could just as easily be another change. Very legato, accents, marcato, etc.).

As I put in the viola line, I decide to make a little bit of a canon. Letting the viola play what the second violin just played, but delayed two measures. We’ll see how this shapes up! And then a change in mood happens. The careful staccato leads into octave jumps and some accents. I’m going to have to see if I can incorporate that figure into the other parts eventually.

The cello line gets to shine a little now, playing some high notes, and I think it will sound really beautiful. But I’m running out of time to write this moment, and I’ll have to leave it for a while at least.

Next time, more work on each of the lines. It is exciting to see what will happen.

More work on the string quartet

I’m opening up the score for the string quartet, and it’s really fun! I’m seeing where the melody left off, where the parts left off, and try to write a little on each part, one or two phrases at a time, so that they all feel like they are part of the improvisation that isn’t really an improvisation. But I keep in mind that all the players want to play something that is meaningful. It has to fit with the rest, and they have to alternate having the carrying line.

I’m thinking that the studying of counterpoint proves pretty helpful at this point. J.S. Bach wrote so much contrapuntal work that his work is probably some of the most inspiring – but there are others too. Handel, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Bartok, Schoenberg, Webern, just to name a few great ones.

It’s the idea that you have a theme that is short and concise, that you vary. You let each instrument say something, sometimes as the main melody, and other times as more of an accompaniment, but each new phrase will usually change the constellation of who leads and who supports. It’s very much like a dance.

So I find myself writing a few measures for the viola, and some for the second violin, etc, each time ending a little after the other line, so that it’s kind of like a puzzle, where each new idea has to fit into the framework I’m creating, and as I’m fitting the new idea into the framework, I also extend the framework for the next line to fit into.

At one point, the two violins and the viola all come to an end of their phrase at the same time, so that prepares the way for the cello to take the lead. Next, I write in a contrapuntal line in the first violin, and it ends about five beats after the cello line. The second violin comes in with the first violin, but then it diverges, and the phrase ends five beats after the first’s. Next comes the viola. I decide to give it a measure of rest before coming in, and then I write a contrapuntal line for this instrument. This time I keep going for twelve beats after the second violin before I feel like the line is ended.

That maneuver means that I have twenty-two beats where the cello has nothing, but at least one other instrument has something. So that will be the next place where I put my attention. And I write a line for the cello, and I write until the end of the viola line, and then I see that I have an opening for a transition to something different. It’s a minute into the piece, and I feel content with having given an exposition to the first theme in that minute. There is enough repetition, and enough variation that I feel pretty content with the balance.

Next time, I’ll finish up the end of the exposition in all the instrument, and allow the upper three to join in the new part. Ha! That will be fun.

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.

Are you jealous of what someone else has accomplished?

As I’m writing my book today, I confess that there have been a few times when I felt jealous of other composers having their original operas performed. But when it comes to Mozart or Puccini I just feel kind of intimidated by the sheer volume of their output.

I’m still reading James Clear’s Atomic habits, and the quote I stick with today is this: “What’s the difference between the best athletes and everyone else? What do the really successful people do that most don’t?” Mr Clear is interviewing an elite coach, who mentions factors you might expect: genetics, luck, talent. “But then he said something I wasn’t expecting: ‘At some point it comes down to who can handle the boredom of training every day, doing the same lifts over and over and over.'” (p. 233)

Expect it to get boring sometimes, and plan for it to be ok anyway. Just keep going.

I again failed to bring my notebook to the gym where I’m working today, so I decide to just start a new score for a string quartet that doesn’t require my notes from the other day. I’ll think more about what I want to do with the piece, but I’ve written in an opening phrase for the two violins, and I have some ideas of rhythms, melodies, harmonies expressed in just those few measures. As I talked about the other day, really successful music pretty much always features lots of repetition, lots of themes with variations, and some development of ideas. Creating an idea isn’t that hard, it’s the rest that is the craft.

Hoping next week I’ll be able to get some more time into the two pieces I now have open for editing, but at least I plan on showing up, even if it’s just for a little bit. If I can find the time and energy, I’d like to write some more poetry to feed my music.

Time to gather inspiration, and more work on the song

Yesterday I delivered the parts and ended up doing very little to write more music. I prioritized playing my viola for a half hour when I had the opportunity because I think it’s easier to get back to the sound I love if I do it more frequently. Then when the kids were climbing, I had my viola part for the Mendelssohn quartets and listened to Opus 13, 80, and just barely started on 44 when it was time to wrap up.

How deeply emotional they are! I’m trying to put my finger on why they are triggering such profound emotions when I listen to them. I think it is because they have a certain melodic turn-shape, and then it’s the repetition of that same shape. It’s coming from one instrument, then from another. It’s in one octave, then in another. It’s at one dynamic level, and then it’s at a different one. It’s the lovely development of ideas, and then the juxtaposition of a very different sound. It’s the dance-like structure to some of the movements that make me want to get up and dance.

Studying the quartets with the viola part helps me hear that part especially well, and I know when to anticipate what I think is a general pause in the musical flow.

Today I’m looking at my song again. Adding in a measure of rest for the vocalist, because I think it’s too much to keep singing for so long, and it’s good for the people listening to have a break in listening to the text as well. I know I need to add in the piano part, and it’s more than I think I can do in one sitting. So I’ll just get started and we’ll see how far I get.

I decide to work on a bass line in the piano part, from right before I stopped on the right hand line. I’m realizing I am writing the part so that a contrabass could play the bass line, and I like it. It would sound great with a contrabass and some other instrument, maybe a clarinet, and soprano. Well, a clarinet could only play one note at a time. A guitar I believe could do it well, with the few chords I have written, and mostly melodic line accompanying with a single note at a time.

So I think I might write another instrumentation for this song once I finish all the lines. Maybe tomorrow.