Writing again

Earlier this year I posted about how writing wasn’t going so great… well, more like awful actually – at least that’s how it felt a the time. Today I got back into writing again. Even better, I finished something. So how did that happen?

As it turns out I’d already finished something, I just didn’t know it at the time. I’d started with the chord shown below which combines three triads a semitone apart Gb on G on Ab. I liked the crunch this chord has and I could score in such a way as to provide plenty of clarity for players and instrument sections.

compoundchord

I then took some elements from the chord and created some melodic lines like these:

itcometh_melodicideas

Somewhere in this process I wrote this little waltz theme:

itcomethwaltztheme

This is when the problems began. I was stuck trying to find a way to meld these ideas together. I really liked the ideas by themselves, but I couldn’t find a way to get convincing from the waltz theme into the compound chord.

My working title was It Cometh… and in order to try and get a handle on the form of the piece and to provide a sense of structure to my writing, I wrote a story line for the piece. People and dancing and a monster slowly approaches. Obviously then the waltz theme is the people dancing, the compound chord would be the final “scream” when the monster arrives. I even wrote a waltz for the monster to dance to (in a vague reference to this classic movie scene). The story was nice, but I still couldn’t get to the final chord ina  convincing way. After leaving it for 6 months, today I found the solution. I simply abandoned the chord and the material designed to transition from the waltz theme into the chord. What I was left with was a nice little waltz in rondo form. Happy Days!

The takeaway – sometimes you have to abandon ideas no matter how much you like them because they just don’t fit.

How to cover scales with ketchup (tomato sauce)

This is post isn’t about composing, but I’m so excited about my current approach to doing scales with students that I thought I’d post about it. I’m guessing most of you reading this do some teaching of beginners so hopefully you find it helpful.

If my children are any guide, then the only way to make vegetables palatable is to drown them in tomato ketchup. As I teacher, I’m always searching for the magic ketchup that will make scales palatable to my students. Whilst I’m not sure that such a thing exists, some approaches to scales seem to work better than others.

My students and I have a fundamental difference of opinion. I want my students to be able to play all 12 major/minor scales a a decent tempo, and from memory. My students don’t want to practice scales at all. This cartoon captures their sentiment perfectly…

Awesome already

My current approach to solving this stalemate is based on only doing the first 5 notes of the scale. I start with C major, then I do D minor, then D major, at which point the process repeats itself.The picture illustrates what I mean.

ScalesExample

Here’s all the reasons why this approach is cool:

  1. Five notes fits our short term memory processing abilities much better than the full scale.
  2. It covers both major and minor scales
  3. Major and minor scales are integrated with each other. Previously I would do a few major scales, then if there was time and I could be bothered, a few minor scales.
  4. It avoids explaining a harmonic minor scale with the raised 7th. Notice that this extra complexity occurs exactly where are our short term processing power runs out (at the 7th object/thing).
  5. Instead minor scales are presented as a variation (or one step away) from a major scale. I know that D minor and C major aren’t the relative major and minor scales in a classical theory sense. But from a learning point of view it is much easier to teach D minor as “take a C major scale, drop the bottom note and add one note on top”. (I use my fingers to demonstrate.)
  6. It highlights the fact that it is the 3rd note that is the key factor in defining a scale as major or minor. This holds true across modes (Lydian, Major, Mixolydian are all “major” modes with a major 3rd, the remaining modes all sound “minor” with a minor 3rd).
  7. It makes getting to a new scale a matter of altering one note. It the above example the next scale is E major, but students only have to alter the G to a G#…easy!
  8. For beginning students it allows them to learn a much wider range of scales within a limited note range. Limited note range isn’t so much of an issue on strings, but on brass instruments it certainly is.
  9. To get the full octave scale, all that needs to be done is to combine two 5 notes groups. 5 note C major + 5 note G major = full octave C major. Better than that 5 note C major + 5 note G minor = full octave C mixolydian. Similarly, 5 note C minor + 5 note G minor = full octave C dorian. Or, 5 note C minor + 5 note G major = full octave C melodic minor ascending.

Before I finish, I should acknowledge that I got this concept initially from a colleague Steve C — yes he and I do actually sit around talking about how to teach kids scales and have fun doing it (even without ketchup). Thanks Steve!

My Favourite Chord

This is one of my favourite chords:

FavouriteChord#1

Personally, I think about it as an Ab(add2)/C rather than the Cm7(b6), but whatever floats your boat. The important thing is what it sounds like.

I love the mix of warmth (generated by the 6th between the lower voices and the 10th between the outer voices), bite (generated by the 2nd between the inner voices and the 7th between alto and bass) and ambiguity/openness (generated by the 4th between the upper voices and the 5th between the soprano and tenor).

A closely related chord that is also a favourite is this one:

FavourtieChord#2.jpg

I hear this as a minor chord with the added b6, rather than as a major 7 chord. This is similar to the previous chord, but the semitone on the inside rather than a tone gives is a little more bite. It’s interesting that the same 3 notes (C, Ab, Eb) can be heard in 2 different ways depending on the added tone (Bb or G).

Why do you care what my favourite chord is? Well you don’t, except that they might become yours. More importantly for me though is that this is another interesting place to start writing from. The question of “how can I write “X” for young bands and get away with it” has been a fruitful one for me in the past. Here’s hoping that one of these chords will do the same job in the future.

Now it’s time to listen to Appalacian Spring by Aaron Copland. I love what Copland does with major chords!

 

 

 

 

Ogopogo II – Percussion Thunder

Well, there you have it. My compulsion to name any kind of follow-on post like it’s a sequel in a action movie franchise. I’d like to think Ogopogo II – Percussion Thunder both sounds like a movie you might want to see, and gives you the clue that I’m looking at the use of percussion in Robert Buckley’s piece Ogopogo in this post.

You can find a link to Ogopogo Episode XVII – No, that’s an Eb flutes, the blockbuster prequel to this post here.

(Ok, that’s most of the silly stuff out of the way, now onto the useful (I hope) content.)

My gut feel, having worked with this piece for a month or so, is that the percussion are like the coming of colour TV in this piece. Without them, the piece will still work just fine, just like you can watch TV just fine in black & white. But having percussion there brings lots of colour and makes the David Attenborough nature documentary much more enjoyable to watch.

Hmm, that just turned into a mish-mash of metaphors. So to summarise:

No percussion = piece still works

With percussion = piece sounds much better.

Details:

The percussion are scored as follows:

Percussion 1 = Medium Tom (or Snare Drum, no snares), Triangle, Bass Drum

Percussion 2 = Suspended Cymbal, Bell Tree, Hi-Hat

Mallets = Bells

Percussion 1 needs two players, possibly even three, percussion 2 could be played with just one player.

The percussion are never independent from the band, and there is no section which is just percussion. Hence why the piece is still playable without any percussion. Instead the percussion are used primarily as a highlight colour.

The opening low brass crescendo figures are reinforced at the end with a bass drum and suspended cymbal hit. I suspect I would have been tempted to add either a suspended cymbal roll or a timpani roll or both to the crescendo. It’s interesting to see a beginner band writer going for subtlety rather than the “everyone hit something” approach.

Similarly the bells are used to just highlight the answering figure in b.2 rather than play the entire phrase. Again I suspect I would have just had the bells double the main melodic line here.

In bar 16 and other similar places the two bar crescendo/decrescendo figure is highlighted with a bell tree and a single note from the bells. Notice the nice blend between a bell tree and the bells. At the end of the piece (b.61-2), Robert uses triangle and bells together. Once again, high, metallic percussion instruments work nicely together.

The tom part essentially reinforces the rhythm of the melody. At b.17-22 the bass drum and tom setup a nice little percussion “groove”. However it remains subtle and reinforcing, not the key driving element.

I read a Sammy Nestico quote once where he talked about the eraser being the arrangers most important tool. The concept was create clarity through removing what was unnecessary. Adding more doesn’t make things better. Instead it generally just clutters and obscures things. This is what I see in Ogopogo. A really well crafted piece for beginner band where unnecessary clutter has been removed. The composer has chosen simplicity and clarity over the seemingly more common “let’s all play, all the time, and loud” approach.

So there you have it, the Ogopogo trilogy and like all good trilogy’s it doesn’t have 3 parts.

Thanks for reading!

PS – yes it’s possible I spent as much time on the silly graphic as on the post, but it was fun.

 

 

Ogopogo

Ogopogo is a great piece for beginner band written by Robert Buckley. Here is my analysis of it…

Key: D Phrygian. Yay! It’s not in Bb Major or in C Dorian (which seems to be the new favorite beginner piece key)

Form: Intro (8) | A (8) | A (8) | B (2+2+2+2) | A (8+2) | A (8) | Intro (8) | Coda (6)

Subtle variations in the accompaniment and the the way the “A” melody is stated prevent the four “A” sections from feeling too repetitious.

Note Range: Concert Bb –> G (i.e. the first 6 notes)

Rhythm: Primarily 1/4 notes. Some use of half and whole notes. very limited use of 1/8th notes. He only ever uses two 1/8th notes at a time, and only one 1/8th note pair per bar maximum.

Dynamics: This piece has excellent dynamic range across sections and within phrases. The dynamics for each section are:

p cresc. f | mp | mf | mf | f | ff | p cresc. f | mf, mp, p

In addition to the marked dynamics, Robert also orchestrates each section to reflect the dynamic marking. He makes extensive use of one bar crescendo and one bar diminuendos, which in turn then becomes an important unifying device.

Motivic Material/Development: The introduction is based on an ascending scale fragment. This concept then becomes the basis for a 2 bar secondary motif that answers the main melody (bars 7-8, 15-16, 23-24, 39-42, 49-50, 57-58). This motif has the cresc./decres. device mentioned earlier. The introduction is then inverted for the coda.

The melody in the A section is 8 bars built as 2+2+4. The initial 2 bar idea is repeated and developed in the second 2 bar phrase. This is then answered in the final 4 bar phrase. (Yes, there is some great music theory terminology that describes this type of phrase construction, but right now I can’t remember what it is and can’t be bothered looking it up. I figure the important thing is that I recognize what’s going on.)

The B section is 8 bars built as 2+2+2+2. Essentially a pair of question/answer phrases.The final 2 bars is repeated creating a transitional passage leading us back to the “A” section. This is further reinforced by breaking the one bar cresc./decres. device and instead having a 4 bar crescendo.


Orchestration:

Intro: (m.1-8) 

Low WW’s/Br tutti,  then A.Sx/Tpt/(Fl/Ob 8va) and harmonized by Cl/T.Sx/Hn

Here’s what I find interesting…

  1. He doesn’t include Fl/Ob in m.2, but adds them in m.4. I reckon I would have just orchestrated both bars the same by default. (that’s not a good thing!)
  2. In m.7-8 he leaves out Fl/Ob/T.Sx/Hn. Again, I think I would have just defaulted “everyone in” in a unison tutti passage like this. Leaving out Fl/Ob seems like a colour choice. The Hn. is left out because it would just sit either awkwardly high or awkwardly low. The T.Sx is left out because…well I’m not quite sure why. Maybe because it is generally doubling the Hn. so it makes it more consistent for the students?
  3. In m.2, m.4, m.6 the harmony part is a dotted 1/2, the melody is three 1/4 notes. A simple and subtle way to create interest.

My takeaway: always think about every orchestration choice. Don’t just mindlessly (aka lazily) use the default settting.

Ogopogo Ex.1


A1 (m.9-16)

The melody is Cl/A.Sx. The accompaniment is a single 1/4 note on beat one of each measure, played by the low WW/Br.

A2 (m.17-24)

The melody is played by Fl/Ob in octaves with the Tpt. This is harmonised by the A.Sx/T.Sx/Hn playing a 4th or 3rd below the melody. Apart from creating an interesting harmony, this also puts these instruments in a great “easy” register.

The bassline is similar to A1, but now there is a 1/4 on beat three played by some of the low WW/Br.This is in contrast to beat one which is tutti.Again a simple and subtle way to create interest.

My takeaway: always think about every orchestration choice. Don’t just mindlessly (aka lazily) use the default settting.

Ogopogo Ex.2


B (m.25-32)

In the first phrase the melody is played by Fl/Ob in octaves with the Cl. The accompaniment is played by T.Sx/Hn in 5ths with Tbn/B.Sx /Tba (8vb)

In the second phrase the melody is played by A.Sx/Tpt. The accompaniment now in 4ths played by Cl and T.Sx/Hn./Fl.+Ob. (8va).

Apart from the obvious shift in timbre between the two phrases, there is also a shift in tessitura. (I just wanted show show off a few music theory words…I do remember a few at least!)

In m.29-30 the secondary motif is scored for Cl./A.Sx/Tpt with Fl.8va, the repetition in m.31-32 is full band tutti.

Ogopogo Ex.3.jpg


A3 (m.33-42)

Here the melody shifts to the low WWs/Br. This is punctuated by 1/4 note chords from the rest of the band, again voiced in 4ths/5ths with Cl/A.Sx/Tpt and T.Sx/Hn. The Fl/Ob. double Cl 8va.

Ogopogo Ex.4.jpg


A4 (m.43-50)

In m.43, m.45, m.47 there is a unison statement of the melody by the ensemble. However the note value has changed from a short 1/4 note (+a rest) to being a full length 1/2 note.

There is a similar shift in tessitura in m.44 as occurs in the B section.

My takeaway: This tessitura shift is a great device that I plan on stealing as some point in the future

Ogopogo Ex.5.jpg


Intro (m.51-58)

This is identical to m.1-8


Coda (m.59-64)

The orchestration approach here is the same as for the intro.

Other takeways:

  1. I like his use of the A.Sx , T.Sx in reinforcing the horns. The horns are never left alone. Sometimes it’s reinforced by one sax or the other and sometimes by both.
  2. There are a lot of subtle orchestration shifts and different instrument combinations, yet at the same time it is rock solid orchestration that will withstand the beating that a beginner band gives every piece!

No, I haven’t talked about percussion at all…I’ll do that next time. So just hold off with the beaters for just bit longer…

 

 

Sharpen the Axe

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” 

Abraham Lincoln

From my last post, you will know that writing isn’t’ going so well for me at the moment. So, I’m going to “sharpen my axe”. Today I’m listening to some Miles Davis whilst reading this great research paper: Inside the Score in the 21st CenturyOne quick look at this article and you’ll realise that it’s not about writing for Concert Band. This is ok for two reasons…

  1. Great composition happens in every genre and great ideas can come from anywhere. For you think might mean taking a walk, going to the ballet or visiting an art gallery, or something else entirely.
  2. I also write for Big Band (Jazz Ensemble), so it is a little more directly relevant for me.

The article also references several notable contemporary Big Band writers and their works, which I will also listen to.

Then I’m going to analyse a beginner band piece that we are doing at school Ogopogo by Robert Buckley.

A day of listening, analyzing and hopefully learning…with any luck my “axe” will be sharper at the end of the day.

 

Stuck

Let’s just say, it’s not going well. My last 3 pieces were knocked back by publishers (as is their right to do) and so far this year I’ve managed to complete a grand total of…(drum roll)…nothing. Sure I’ve started lots of pieces, but I’ve not actually managed to finish any. Not for lack of trying mind you, but I just seem to get STUCK.

Frankly this blog post isn’t going much better. I write one sentence then spend 5 minutes debating what to write next. This is my third attempt at this sentence (yes, the one that says “this is my third attempt at this sentence”). I start, stop, change my mind, can’t quite figure out what I’m trying to say, have a mental debate, start, stop…well you get the idea.

That’s pretty much how my writing is going as well. Before I spend another few hours and 50 words agonizing over why I’m having trouble writing anything, it’s probably more useful to try and answer this question:

What am I going to do about it?

Well my solution right now is to try to write a blog post instead of writing a piece of music. (This isn’t exactly a stellar effort at a blog post, but if you’re reading this, at least I managed to post it which is something at least). My next bunch of ideas are:

  1. Listen to some music
  2. Analyse some pieces I like
  3. Keep writing. Write anything. Don’t worry about finishing, or if it’s good or bad, just write stuff
  4. Work through a harmony book (Vincent Persichetti’s Twentieth-Century Harmony to be precise)
  5. Lather, rinse repeat

I figure sooner or later things will change, hopefully sooner…