Tag Archives: The Imperial March

Reflections on rhythm

I have been reflecting on rhythm a bit the last day or two. I guess I sometimes keep the rhythm very simple, and other times I play with it a lot. I’m not a percussionist, and I know they play with rhythm a lot more. Sometimes in the string section, we get to be percussive, and it’s all about the rhythm. Like when we played Mjölnir or The Imperial March for example.

I have learned about music for pretty much as long as I can remember. At first, it was all in Swedish, because I lived in Sweden until 2002, when I entered Brigham Young University as an undergraduate student in music. I had taken plenty of music theory, aural skills, composition and arranging classes, harmony, choir, vocal ensemble, piano, and I had also rubbed shoulders with lots of talented musicians in other fields (instrumentalists of most kinds, jazz players, etc.) which gave me some insight into their world.

But it wasn’t until I was in college that I learned the terms “simple meter” and “compound meter.” It’s very intuitive once you apply it to all the music you’ve heard and studied for 15 years or so, and it becomes another useful tool or term to use when talking about music. I’ll explain here briefly for those who may not know about it.

Simple meter is when the subdivision is 2. You have 2/4, 3/4, 4/4, 5/4, etc., and the subdivision is the eighth note. Compound meter is when the subdivision is 3, and you have, for example, 3/8, 6/8, 9/8, 12/8, and so on. For a conductor, you beat one, but there are three notes to each beat (or you feel it if it’s not subdivided right there).

We were just playing the music from Avatar last week at our Halloween concert. One of the intriguing parts about the music is that it switches from simple to compound to simple subdivisions several times. Harry Potter symphonic suite is all over the place as well, and you get to play both. You can simulate compound meter by writing in triplets in a simple meter. And you can simulate simple meter in a compound meter by writing in tuplets.

When I write music that is based on words, the lilt of the language helps inform the rhythm. That is one reason I love working with lyrics, because inherent in most poetry is an interesting rhythm, and it helps me create what I think is an interesting line.

Try these:

“and the calf” with the rhythm two eighth notes and a quarter note


“cover the sea” with eighth note triplets and a half note.

You get the stress on the strong part of the beat, which makes it easier to sing, and easier to understand when you listen.

This way, the way you write rhythm reflects your interpretation of the lyrics, much like a reading would convey the way you understand the poetry.

As I’m working on the melody for my new song, I listen through, and find that there is one point where the word “and” lands on the downbeat of a measure, and it seems wrong. I fix it by adding in an eighth note to the previous beat, and moving all the rest of the notes one beat closer to the beginning, and it’s like I was imagining. It’s easy to make a mistake, but I’m glad it’s pretty easy to fix too.

I’m trying to decide which parts of the scriptures I’d picked to include, and which to skip over. Trying to include all the scriptures will be tedious, and people might struggle to understand certain wordings because they’re so archaic. For a song to be “catchy” like I suggested yesterday, repetition is extremely useful. Nobody can learn a song that doesn’t repeat anything except by practicing a lot, and that kind of is the antithesis of “catchy.” I would like it if people hear my song, and then start humming it, and that will only happen if I repeat an idea enough. So maybe I’ll settle with the material I’ve come up with and then repeat the ideas again, with some interesting (hopefully) twists.

Final week of symphony polishing

I start the morning’s composition session by looking at what I wrote Friday. I see that I then thought the shape was about right, and that it mostly needed detail work.

I listen through the ending. I feel content with the transition from B minor to C major. The ending feels like the timing is about right, but it definitely needs more orchestration doublings, maybe some other figures in the winds and brass and percussion.

I listen through the entire movement. I make a note of a trumpet part that needs a note fixed, I see a second clarinet part that totally looks incomplete, like I wrote one note and somebody interrupted me. And from page 20 on, I know I need to look through the orchestra and add in lots of doublings and more figures because it’s basically string orchestra only, and it needs to be a tutti section, more or less.

Where I had written a contrabass solo, the melody doesn’t come through well, and I’m thinking I might double them with cellos. I try it, and realize the cellos will totally overpower the basses. I give the tuba a lower dynamic, and give the contrabasses a fortissimo, and maybe it will work now.

I make the second clarinet part a little longer so he or she can stay on that trill for ten beats instead of four. I start working on the second flute part in that section. It’s definitely fuller and more complete.

The string orchestra section that is supposed to be tutti is first supplemented by a triangle part. A few measures later, I write in two flute parts, an oboe part, a clarinet, and a bassoon part. Even though the figure of the section is familiar, the new-ish bassoon part is the one that stands out as most melodious. I decide to double the gist of the line with trombones, add in some trumpets after that, and it just continues to flow with more brass parts. I know I’ll need some shimmering flutes to double the shimmering violins in the next few measures. But the trumpets have gotten to the end of the piece, which is very exciting.

I add in the timpani, cymbals. I listen through the piece again. Wondering if it’s any good. Making notes of adding in some punctuating horns, possibly a viola part, and a marimba. And then I don’t know what to do. So I’ll break for lunch soon. But first, I try to do the ideas I wrote down. It’s a good stopping point.

It’s concert day, and time for my viola to get a sound check, so I spend the rest of my day taking care of my instrument, warming up, playing through the most difficult parts of the orchestra pieces, and drive my daughter to climbing practice, drop her off and head straight to call time for the orchestra concert.

Orchestra concert is fun. It’s a new venue, and at our preconcert practice I can hardly hear most of the orchestra. I just hope we sound together. I sit close to the cellos this time, but when the concert is going on, I can hear most of the sounds I’m supposed to. It’s surprisingly well-balanced, and it’s a lot of fun. I think my favorite part of the program is Danse Macabre by Camille Saint-Saëns. Because it’s the last on the program, it’s easy to have the melody linger in the mind after the concert is over.

Playing the Imperial March this time, the trombones are glorious, and I am basking in the fun accompaniment that the violas participate in. Our conductor has some weird Star wars helmet on which brings a kind of gravity to the piece.

It’s my first time performing Peter and the Wolf (by Sergei Prokofiev). It is kind of an odd piece, that has lots of little parts. I think my favorite part is when the duck is swimming in the water. If you’ve heard this piece, you may remember that it’s the oboe that plays the duck theme. The violas accompany in divisi, meaning there are two viola parts and we split.

I know I’ll try and finish the orchestration either tomorrow or the next day. I might have time to also go over all the bowings and phrasing for the strings.

How to think about a symphony

I was about nine years old, and I listened to symphonic music on the radio, and I knew I loved that sound. It took me long enough, but I am in a position now where I get to play in a symphony orchestra at least once a week, often twice. I love sitting in the middle, where the violas usually are placed. Sometimes I sit in front of the oboes, sometimes the flutes, there was another time when I sat in front of the snare drum and the rest of the percussion section. There are often either second violins or cellos to my side, depending on what chair I have in that concert. On occasion, it’s the harp that’s on my side.

As a violist, I get to see my own part, and I get a feel for how much in a symphony I play. For our Halloween concert with American Fork Symphony, we’re playing The Imperial March from Star Wars. You all might know that it has a very strong feature of trombones, one of my favorite instruments ever – what a glorious sound! – and yet, because I’m playing the accompaniment, which is really intense, I am focusing most of my attention on the accompaniment, and that is as it should be.

As a composer, I write down my idea for how the music is growing from one idea to the next. It is usually based on what will the melody be, who is playing it, and who takes over when I want a different sound.

However, sometimes, I just have an idea for a cool accompaniment figure that I want to explore. The melody grows after I’ve come up with the accompaniment texture, the rhythm, and the bass line. Or I decide that the bassoon, tuba, or contrabass is taking the melody, so the accompaniment needs to be in the higher register to not conflict with it.

And then it’s endings. How do you know that a piece is over? It can be kind of difficult, until the orchestra stops playing for long enough that you know they aren’t starting up again. Case in point: Beethoven’s 5th symphony. Listen to the fourth and final movement, and tell me that you weren’t surprised at least once that the piece wasn’t over yet. There’s something about the cadence, we kind of expect it to be over when everything is tied to a unison or an acceleration of texture and rhythm. Or it could be really quiet, and the Italian word for this is morendo, dying. The sound dies slowly and you know it’s over because you had time to adjust to the quiet.

If you’ve read some of my other posts or talked to me lately, you may be aware that I’m currently finishing up my first symphony. It’s the fourth movement. I thought, I’ll aim for about 6-7 minutes in length. But then this section with the horns chasing the melody and then the strings joining in, and I had this fabulous ending landing in my lap. The problem: I was only about 5 minutes in. The piece was too short. So I decided to give a recapitulation nod to Beethoven, and let the oboes come in with the first theme in a new key. So fun! Let’s see where that leads. I haven’t completed it yet, but I’m aiming for next week.

Another thing I’ve had fun with the past few days is adding in the spice of percussion. I had started out the movement with timpani and marimba, but I’m writing the piece including two more percussionists, which means I have access to more spice. A snare drum is excellent to emphasize the rhythmic figures of the orchestra, and cymbals can accent the beats really well when that is what you need. A triangle has a delicate but still penetrating sound and is a nice addition to my accompaniment idea. Etc. One of the biggest instruments is a bass drum, and the thunderous sound is sometimes exactly what you are looking for.

In a brief interaction with one of the percussionists, I confirmed that a marimba player can easily have several instruments in front of him or her, and therefore, I wrote a Glockenspiel part. I think about the Glock a little like a piccolo. It’s extremely high pitched, and it’s kind of like icing on the orchestra, and if you have access to it, you’re just excited.

Thanks for reading! Feel free to reply (click on “Leave a reply” at the top of the post), and I look forward to talking more about orchestra music next time.