One of the ways to get better as a composer is to study the works of other composers. So, I’ve started looking at pieces that I have conducted/rehearsed/performed that I really like. Rather than offer a complete, formal analysis I plan on just highlighting things that I find interesting or can learn from.
The first piece I’ll be looking at is Black Is The Color… by Robert Sheldon. You can find a recording and score here:
The piece is in D minor. However rather than an obvious triad to support the opening melody, Sheldon uses a series of 4-note clusters as shown here:
Close harmonies are tricky for young players to hear and are more sensitive to poor intonation than a straight triad, so orchestration choices are critical. Here the cluster is played by clarinets and alto saxes – probably the best choice in this register, at this level. Range wise these clusters could have been played by the upper brass, but intonation is likely to be much worse. Low D for trumpets is sharp (without using the 3rd valve slide), pitching for horns is hard enough without adding a note a tone away. Similarly trombones will have trouble playing notes a tone apart accurately.
Clusters continue to be used throughout the piece by adding a note to a triad. The added note is typically placed in the clarinets or the alto saxes, generally not in the brass.
Rather, the brass play lush triadic voicings:
Notice the use of chord extensions. This is a further example of how Sheldon finds ways to expand the tonal palette beyond simple triads in ways that are playable for students at this level. He also expands out of the basic D minor tonality. In bars 36-39 the progression is Eb → Cm7 → Abmaj7, Abmaj6 → Dbmaj7.
The final chord is a tierce de picardie. The brass are voiced with a straight D major triad, but the woodwinds have an added 2, again placed as a cluster in the clarinets and alto saxes.
Rather than just play the melody straight through, several phrases are extended by a bar in order to allow the upper winds to play a motivic response (bars 11-12 and bars 16-17). A further phrases extension happens in bars 37-39.
Overall this treatment of the melody creates a sense of space and tranquility, which is highly appropriate given the dedication “In memory of Mark Williams”.
By largely avoiding a simple static chord accompaniment, Sheldon creates a subtle sense of movement and generates interest with a mix of simple rhythmic counterpoint and passing notes.
Percussion is used skilfully throughout the piece to add color, interest and to “glue” sections together. All together he uses:
- Suspended Cymbal, Snare Drum (snares off), Mark Tree, Triangle
Bells are used to subtly reinforce a single melodic note (b.2, b.43, b.49) or a high woodwind line (b11-12, b16-17). Only once are the used on a strong melodic figure which is also the climax of the piece (b.35-38)
Timpani is used to emphasise key cadence points (b.4-5, b.33-34, b.42-43) and to provide a sustained tonic pedal (b.13-15, b.20-23, b.26-32, b.43-45)
What is interesting is how much the percussion don’t play. But not simply lathering the whole piece with bass drum, snare drum tambourine etc etc it makes the percussion parts much more meaningful. Conversely it makes the percussion even more vital. Every suspended cymbal roll now really matters, it becomes a crucial part of the texture at that point in the music.
I know for me, this is an important lesson to learn. My tendency is to throw lots of percussion at pieces. However if you aren’t careful it becomes the equivalent of the kindergarten painting that has turned brown due to using all of the colors everywhere!
I love they way Sheldon finds ways to use the flutes in their lowest register (b.27-30). How many junior band pieces do you play where the flutes play down to their low D? It works in this piece because they accompany and unison melodic statement by the low brass/woodwinds. The clarinets and alto sax hold 4th in a similar register to the flute line, but the total rhythmic separation (moving line vs sustained note) and tonal separation ensure clarity.
Clarinets also use their lowest register with all clarinets written down to a low E in b.31.
So, not a complete formal analysis of this great piece, but hopefully there’s something in there that you can learn from – I know I have.