Ancient Voices – Take #2
This is a continuation of my previous post where I began looking at Michael Sweeney’s piece Ancient Voices. In this post I’ll look at some of the harmony and orchestration approaches that Michael uses.
The first harmonic element in this piece is a 5 note cluster! In a grade 1 piece!!!!!! Yes, I think it needs that many “!”s. This is not what you would typically expect to see in a piece at this level. But, just like the tempo changes I discussed in the previous post, Michael is clever with how he writes the cluster in order to make sure that it is successful.
- The cluster is scored for alto sax (2 parts) and clarinet (3 parts). Let’s be honest, pitching on a woodwind instrument at this level is much more accurate on woodwinds than on brass. Brass tend to play clusters by accident rather than design in the early years of learning.
- It starts with all 5 parts in unison, then moves out to the 5 notes…slowly! This gives the players an easy starting point and enables them to hear the chord develop, rather than just trying to land on a cluster out of the blue.
- The cluster is repeated for 5 bars, before being repeated a minor 3rd higher for 2 bars and then returning to the original cluster for one bar. The relatively static nature of the cluster enables students to adjust to the sound of the cluster and for the chord to “settle”.
- 1st clarinet outlines the entire chord. Getting pyramid structures/entries to work in an ensemble can be tricky. For some reason, students struggle with having to enter one after another and someone always misses their entry. By having everyone start together and then some players just stop “early” works much better. Having the 1st clarinet play the entire cluster entry means that every entry/note will be heard, every time. I used a variation on this approach at the end of my piece Race to the Moon.
- Notice also that in bar 7, the trumpets add another new pitch to the cluster for a total of 6 different pitches sounding at once! BUT the trumpets are scored in 3rds – a much easier interval to hear and play together for the trumpets. Notice also that the trumpet part could not having been played by the clarinets without crossing the break. So, if you swapped the clarinet and trumpet parts around, this chord would not be as successfully realised by a junior ensemble.
- Having a consonant interval at the top of the chord voicing opens it up a little and gives some clarity to the chord.
- In bar 9, the flute line includes an eighth pitch (Db) to the sound! What other piece have you played where 8 pitches are sounded simultaneously and successfully…by a junior band? I’m willing to bet that unless you actually analyse the score, neither you as a director or the students have any idea that there are that many pitches being sounded. Some reasons why this works are as follows:
- The entries are staggered (WW cluster, then tpts, then flute melody) which gives the listener’s ear time to adjust and shift focus.
- Successive entries are lighter/ /more open than the previous entry (cluster, then a 3rd, then a unison line)
- Clarity in orchestration. Each entry is in a clearly defined tone color, in a clearly defined register, with good rhythmic separation between the melody (foreground) and the sustained chord (background). This is what gets you good marks in orchestration 101 🙂
Apart from the cluster chords (which I’ve just spent 600+ words droning on about), Michael also uses some straight triads, min7 chords and some sus type chords as seen here in this section at bar 18
This is scored for 2 clarinets, alto sax, tenor sax, french horn, and low WW’s/Brass which gives it a nice warm, lush sound. One interesting thing to note is the way the first chord is orchestrated. The 3 notes in the bass stave (A, E, A) are given to the french horn, trombone (aka Euphonium/low WW’s) and tuba. How would you distribute the notes? The default (and slightly unthinking option) would be to just “go down the score”. F.Hn = A, Tbn = E, Tba = A. Instead, the F.Hn is given the E. This keeps the tbns and tba in octaves for this passage. Once again Michael sets the band up for success because this is easier for the players to pitch (the trombones being beside the tuba, whilst the french horns are usually on the other side of the band). This kind of attention to detail in orchestration is what you also find in the great writing for symphony orchestra.
Repetition is great in beginning level pieces because there is less material for the students to learn. As a composer, you will create a much stronger work if you try to exploit the possibilities found in a small amount of material rather than just jumping from new idea to new idea. But simple, mindless cut ‘n paste repetition is almost always boring at the very least and leads to a weaker piece. Ancient Voices uses orchestration as a means to create 16 bars of material from one simple 2 bar motif.
First it’s played by the lower WW’s/Brass, then it is immediately repeated with the addition of the trumpets. Then there is a two bar percussion interlude (based on the opening of the piece), before the motif is played by the trumpets, then with the addition of the flute+oboe+glockenspiel. A one bar variation in 1/4 notes is then played by the trumpets, then trumpets + flute + oboe + clarinet, then by the entire band in unison/octaves (bar 56-57).
I think I still have more things to rave about in this piece, by I’ll leave them for next time…
Instead of my usual self-absorbed, ego-driven analysis of my own works, I thought I talk about someone else’s work for a change – Michael Sweeney’s piece Ancient Voices
You can find a recording of Ancient Voices here.
I am currently rehearsing this piece with my Yr.8 band (~27 students. the majority of whom have been learning for approximately 18 months). This will be about the 4th time I have done this piece with a band. I keep coming back to it because as a conductor I find that:
- I think it’s a great piece of music
- It explores sounds, textures and techniques that I don’t find in other works
- It has depth. This means that there is stuff in there to rehearse beyond getting the right note with the right rhythm. It enables me to teach music, not just notes.
As I composer, I like it because it’s a great illustration of what I’ve been banging on about in previous posts and I’ve learnt a lot from studying it.
It turns out that I’ve learnt so much, that it won’t all fit into one post, so I’ll break it up into at least two posts. So, in no particular order, things I have learnt from this piece are:
Easy ways to achieve new tone colors:
Michael writes for what he wants, but provides options in case it’s not possible. In the opening bars trumpets are in straight mutes, flutes double on recorder. Both of these options are easy to do and relatively cheap to accomplish ( a recorder ~$9, a straight mute $16).Both options provide an interesting new tonal color. In marketing speak, it helps create a point of difference .
Imaginative Percussion Writing:
Look at the percussion in the first 4 bars:
- a bass drum roll
- hit rim of BD
- hit center of head (as opposed to normal spot…how does this sound different, do you as a composer know? If not, you can’t use a color you don’t know or can’t imagine!)
- snares off (as opposed to on)
- stick on dome of cymbal
- soft mallets on a cymbal roll
- wind chimes
- medium/low tom
Notice that none of these (expect perhaps the roll) are hard. Hitting the centre of the bass drum head, or the dome of the cymbal is no harder than hitting it anywhere else. It does require the percussionist to read the instruction, think about what they are doing, and actively consider the tone color they are producing. Hey, maybe percussion is a serious instrument. Maybe, just maybe we shouldn’t just get any old person to “fill in” on percussion if they forget their clarinet one week. After all, we expect/demand the woodwind and brass players to engage seriously with their part and we never get one of the percussion players to just “fill in” on clarinet. On clarinet it matters whether it’s an F or F#, even for beginners, so why shouldn’t in matter where you hit the bass drum or cymbal? (there endeth the rant about taking percussion seriously and demanding more from our percussion players).
Leveraging what students CAN do
Continuing on the tone color theme, Michael effectively leverages what students CAN do at this level to create unique sounds and textures. In bar 34-45, virtually the whole band plays percussion via a pencil striking the music stand. Again this is cheap! It’s a good excuse to ensure everyone in the band has a pencil. It also enables you to rehearse a percussion rhythm with the whole band. As a conductor I love this because I can afford to spend time with the percussion section to really nail the rhythm and accents, without the rest of the band going bananas and setting the building on fire (trust me, leave brass players alone for 2 minutes and you’ll need a sheepdog to help you herd them back into line!*) (* this may be a slight exaggeration)
In bar 13-16 and bar 46-49 he asks the students to sing a sustained open 5ths. One note only, the only syllable is “Ahh”. Need I say that this a cheap way to generate a new tonal color? And what’s not to like about getting your students to sing?
Changing tempo is not hard!
Changing tempo with in a piece is not hard, even for beginners provided that:
- the tempo changes are easily understood (e.g. twice as fast/half as fast)
- only 2 tempos are involved (i.e. there is a “slow tempo” and a “fast” tempo)
- they don’t happen to often (every two bars is unlikely to work)
- The transitions are well thought out
Does Mr Sweeney do this? You bet your Grandma’s apple strudel he does!* (*Today is the last day of term…if you are a teacher you’ll understand that I’m a little “punchy” today). The piece starts with a slow tempo (76bpm). At bar 34 it doubles tempo (152bpm). If you look at the transition from bar 33 into bar 34 you’ll notice no-one has to actually “make” the tempo change – i.e. no-one plays a specific rhythm on both sides of the tempo change. In bar 33, there is a sustained note in the brass and the percussion only has a bass drum roll and a wind chime gliss. This means that the conductor can use bar 33 to set up the band for the new tempo at b.34. Smooth!
In bar 69, the tempo reverts to the original slow tempo (76bpm). If you look at this transition, again no-one has to “make” the tempo shift straight away. The woodwinds and brass have a sustained note (they only need to watch the conductor for a bar!). The percussion play on beat 1 (easy), BUT they rest on beat 2. This is the crucial beat for the conductor to “show” the new tempo and therefore for the players to adjust to the new tempo and in this case, all players have to do is watch beat 2, they don’t have to play beat 2. The only movement on beats 3 and 4 is in the percussion, so the conductor can focus entirely on ensuring that they have adjusted to the new tempo. Nice!
At bar 79, the tempo doubles to 156bpm again. This is the trickiest tempo change because percussion and low brass do play across this change. But, by this point they should be pretty aware of what the fast tempo will be having played it before. Because the tempo is doubling, for the percussion it is no harder than moving from 1/8 notes to 1/16th notes, despite how it looks on the page. Notice also that the percussion accents line up with the low WW/Br rhythm and that the rhythmic pattern continues in subsequent bars.
There are a bunch of other great things going on harmonically and orchestration wise in this piece as well, but I’ll look at them next time.