Ancient Voices – Take #2
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…