Well you don’t see this everyday when you take beginner band…
It’s slightly tricky to name what these chords are, so I broke the description up across the staves. Essentially there is an augmented triad over an open 5th bass. Ok, well that’s a little unusual for a beginner band. But wait, there’s more! Notice the minor 9th between the A and Bb! The minor 9th is the last great dissonant interval in western music – not what you typically write for beginners. However, Brian has been very sensible in the way he has orchestrated the chord to ensure that it is successful.
- The brass are playing open octaves and 5ths. Easy to pitch, easy to play in tune and they sound great on brass instruments
- The upper woodwinds are playing the augmented triad, which includes the dissonant Bb (minor 9th above the A). However, the flutes and oboes are in 6ths, the clarinets are in 3rds. The alto sax reinforces the flute Bb in the octave below.
Functionally, this opening chord is a dominant chord – setting up the G minor at bar 4. The half step shift up from D to Eb in the bass implies a phrygian imperfect (or half) cadence in G minor.
Just as there is a sophisticated approach to meter in this piece, there is also a sophisticated approach to key centers
This piece changes key 6 times. The breakdown of the key centers is:
- Bar 1 – G minor
- Bar 4 – G minor
- Bar 12 – C minor
- Bar 20 – C minor
- Bar 28 – F minor
- Bar 36 – F minor
- Bar 42 – G minor
- Bar 48 – Db major
- Bar 56 – G minor
The key changes Gm → Cm → Fm simply move around the cycle of 4ths. Not overly surprising harmonically, but a little unusual for a piece at this level.
Bar 36 is the first statement of the B theme. When this theme is repeated at bar 42, the piece modulates up a step, back to the home key of G minor. Although it is a return to the home key, it doesn’t feel like it. Rather it feels fresh and new.
The most dramatic key change happens at bar 48 here we are suddenly thrust into Db major. We change mode and move a tritone away to the opposite side of the cycle (G→ Db). Then Brian makes a clever use of chromatic harmony to get us back to a D chord, the dominant of G minor, for the return of the A section at bar 56.
The final section, as is typical, stays firmly in the home key of G minor. This grounds the piece harmonically and gives it a sense of finality.
Despite the number of key centers, all players have very playable parts. Here are some of the reasons why:
- Except for Db major, all the other key centers are the first keys students play in (concert 2 flats, 3 flats, 4 flats). By the end of most beginner method books, students know all these keys.
- By using the natural minor, the harmonic minor’s raised 7th is largely avoided, thereby avoiding more accidentals.
- The melodic material only uses a few notes, largely the first three notes of the scale. As a result at times when it changes key center, some players are not required to play any accidentals.
- At the most dramatic shift to Db major, most players are playing a rhythmic figure on a single pitch. This makes consolidation of new fingerings easier for players.
Making parts playable is the key at this level. Sophisticated compositional devices must be written in a way that is playable. Brian Balmages certainly succeeds in doing that in this piece.
Next time, I’ll take a closer look at how Brian uses orchestration and tessitura to create interest.
I’m currently working on a fantastic piece with my year 8 band (students who are now in their second year of playing) – Spirit of the Stallion by Brian Balmages. It is a grade 1 piece for concert band. You can find a full score here and a recording here.
This piece is both fun to play and has an amazing level of skill and compositional craft in it. Over the next few posts I’ll be looking at some of the aspects of the piece that have caught my eye, starting this week with meter.
At first glance, there seem to be meter changes everywhere. As a the result, upon handing the piece out, students start curling up in the corner and crying about how inhumane it is. This is understandable, after all there are 27 meter changes in a piece of only 65 bars long. That’s almost a meter change every 2 bars. But if we take a deep breath and look at what is going on, things are not so back.
Firstly, he only uses 2/4, 3/4, and 4/4. The 1/4 note pulse never changes. There are no tempo changes. Phew! Ok, now that your breathing is returning to normal, let’s take a closer look at what is going on…
The form of the piece is:
Intro (3 bars)
The introduction is easy – three bars of 4/4. Then the fun begins…
The A sections all follow the same metrical pattern:
4/4 | 3/4 | 4/4 | 3/4 | then four more bars of 3/4
Musically this equates to a 4 bar phrase that is rhythmically tense, followed by a 4 bar phrase the is rhythmically relaxed.
With the accompaniment strongly emphasising beat 1 of each bar and the melody bouncing off of beat 1, this section is much easier to play that it first looks. Notice also that Brian has limited the musical requirements in terms of rhythm and pitch. This enables students to focus on the meter changes.
This is followed by a relaxed phrase that stays in 3/4 and only has simple rhythms.
Repeating this A section pattern four times is very helpful in giving students time to get used to the metrical pattern and to learn its unique groove.
The B section looks easier – the time signature mainly stays in 2/4, but don’t be fooled. In fact, Brian has layered parts in 2/4 over the top of an accompaniment figure that is really in 3/4. Rhythmically this equates to:
Notice that it is not 3/4 playing in the same time as 2/4. The 1/4 note pulse is the same across both parts.
The C section is just in 3/4, no cross meter parts, just straight, simple 3/4.
Just when you couldn’t get enough of changing meters and layering of meters, the final A section cames along. Now we have both going at once. The same shifts between 4/4 and 3/4 as before, but also another part playing across the barline in 3/4 the whole time. To top it off, the accompaniment has also changed slightly to imply 2/4.
Fortunately, this only lasts for four bars before a more straight ahead coda – although straight ahead in this piece means you only change time signature once or twice!
I’m a big believer that if students understand what is going on, they will play it better. So, we’re doing lots of clapping to try and get our heads around everything that happens in this piece meter-wise. Fun and educational…always a great combination.
P.S. You may be wondering what the car is doing at the top of this post. Well, the car is a Mitsubishi Starion. Mitsubishi has a small car called the Mitsubishi Colt (aka a young horse). Legend has it that when Mitsubishi was naming this larger car it was meant to be called the Mitsubishi Stallion (aka an adult horse). But a bit of mis-communication around a Japanese accent speaking English and it wound up being called the Mitsubishi Starion instead. Who knows if it is true, but it’s a great story…
Scorpion! is a piece by Richard L. Saucedo. It is a loud, energetic, driving piece (tempo is 138bpm) that is all about the vibe it creates rather than beautiful melodies and harmonies. My students enjoyed playing it and stylistically it’s not something I would typically write so I thought it would be useful to look a little more closely at it. You can find the recording and score here.
The piece is 74 bars long and is based on a 4 bar harmonic unit. My outline looks like this:
A(8) | buildup 1 (8+2) |A(8) | A(8) | B(4) | buildup 2 (8+2) | C(9) | A(8) | Tag(8) | unison A(4)
The form doesn’t neatly fit into any predetermined shape, but is probably closest to a kind of rondo form.
One of the first things to notice about this piece is that nearly everyone is playing nearly all the time. This helps to make it loud and also creates a kind of wall of energetic sound effect. It is scored for:
- Clarinet 1,2/Bass Clarinet
- Alto Sax 1,2/Tenor Sax/Baritone Sax
- Trumpet 1, 2/Horn
- 3 percussionists
- Oboe, Horn and Timpani are listed as optional.
With the a few brief exceptions (the most notable being the 4 bar “B” section) the percussion play continuous ostinato figures all the way through.
The brass and saxes are typically playing rhythmic chordal figures. Triads are assigned to Trumpet 1, 2 and Horn and are often a doubled by Alto Sax 1, 2 & Tenor Sax.
The low brass and woodwinds play single note rhythmic ostinatos, most often on a pedal G. They do get the melody for 16 bars on the second “A” section.
The upper woodwinds and mallets (Flute, Oboe, Clarinets, Xylophone, Bells) play a mix of unison/octave ostinatos (typically on a pedal G), or unison/octave melodic lines. In the “C” section, the upper winds are also strengthened by the Alto Saxes.
I’ve found Saucedo’s orchestration approach for a triads and rhythmic ostinato line a useful addition my my bag of tricks.
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.
This is one of my favourite chords:
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:
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!
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.
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 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.
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…
- 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!)
- 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?
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
This is identical to m.1-8
The orchestration approach here is the same as for the intro.
- 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.
- 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…
Firstly, sorry about the terrible musical pun in the title, but sometimes you just can’t help yourself.
I was at a new music reading day at the end of last year where a bunch of music teachers smashed our way through about 30 new concert band pieces. A couple of things struck me about the music we played:
- Good pop charts are hard to find. I won’t name and shame, but we played a few truly awful arrangements of some classic rock/pop tunes. Some of which left me mystified as to how you could mess up an arrangement of a piece that had so many great riffs…but that’s a rant for another day.
- So many charts sound the same. Even at harder levels, much of what we played just smooched into one inoffensive, well-crafted piece of vanilla. Given the sheer volume of new music produced every year, this is a bit unsurprising. My take away lesson though: as a comparatively unknown writer, in a country half the world struggle to find on map, I figure there is no future in me producing music like this. As a teacher, I don’t want my students to play music like this because there is not much to learn from it: musically, artistically, or technically.
As a result, I’ve been thinking a lot over the Christmas/New Year break about how I can continue to find something original to say as a writer, and to write music that has musical depth, whilst still being accessible for students to play. Enter J.S. Bach and the awful pun.
In 2013, in one of those moments all band directors have where you look through the filing cabinet of charts with a slight air of desperation trying to find something for the band to play, I stumbled across an arrangement of J.S. Bach’s Bist Du Bei Mir by Anne McGinty (published by Queenwood). My band ended up playing this piece as part of our final concert for that year. These holidays I brought the score home to look at the arrangement a bit closer and see what I could learn from it (yes, I know, I should have completed a Ph.D analysing the work before I started rehearsing it with my band, but sometimes you just don’t have the time or energy).
Armed with my new found insights into the oboe, I immediately noticed that the range of the oboe part is from a low D up to Eb (the one an octave above, not the semitone above…otherwise it would be a pretty boring part!). No need for the oboe player to do contortions trying to get up to the F and beyond.
As is common in beginner level pieces, the low brass and woodwind are grouped together on one stave and just play the bass line. But because this is Bach, the bass part is as melodic and demanding as any of the other parts. No 16 bars of nothing but Bb here. I should warn you at this point that I’m about to get on my soapbox. Feel free to skip ahead, I’ll let you know when I’ve climbed down.
I find it extremely frustrating when the lower brass and woodwind players get charts where they basically play Bb, Eb and F the whole time, and barely get out of whole notes. Is it any wonder that players quit and/or in later years seem incapable of playing anything harder? In my experience it’s hard enough as it is getting students onto the larger instruments, without punishing them with boredom for doing so.
Ok, it’s safe to come back, I’m off my soapbox now.
Rhythmically this piece is quite accessible. It’s in 3/4 with an 1/8 note as the smallest rhythmic element – mainly in pairs. There are only two instances of 1/8th notes not in pairs, but each is used multiple times.
There is some nice variation in tonal colour throughout the piece. Most of the time the entire band is playing, but within that tutti instrumentation, there is still good use of tonal variation to create interest for the listener. The melody is played by the following combinations:
- Flute+Oboe+Clarinets+Alto Sax+Bells
- Flute+Oboe+Clarinet 1+Bells
Notice that the melody is always strongly supported (always a good thing for beginning ensembles).
The one use of a non-tutti orchestration is when the trumpet 1 has the melody, low brass and wood winds drop out and the accompaniment is played by:
Whilst providing a nice lighter texture, it also only lasts for 5 beats so the band shouldn’t completely fall apart in that time.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this piece is the use of tonality and harmony. Key wise the piece moves through the following key centres:
- Bb major
- F major
- G minor
Harmonically there is an extensive use of 1st inversion, inverted dominant 7ths, secondary dominantly and even the odd half diminished chord. In other words, quite a sophisticated harmonic vocabulary (Bach seems to know what he was doing!) yet it remains quite accessible for the players.
All in all it makes me reflect on the fact that simple and easy are not the same thing. Beginning bands need repertoire that is ‘easy’ to play, but that doesn’t mean that our writing has to be simple or shallow. I doubt I will ever be considered in even vaguely the same league as Bach, but I wonder whether he provides an example of what I need to aim for in the future.
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.