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…
Structurally, Udala’m follows a typical pattern for beginner band works – a slow introduction followed by “the fast bit” (aka the part the students want to play and will endure the slow bit for). I looked at the fantastic polyphonic introduction to this piece in my previous post – now onto the fast bit!
From bar 15, the folk melody is played three times, each time preceded by a two bar introduction. Whilst the introduction is pentatonic, this section just uses the first 5 notes of Bb major. Although it hasn’t changed key as such, the subtle shift in the mode from major pentatonic to major still provides an element of contrast.
Each statement of the melody is in unison, with a simple rhythmic ostinato accompaniment. Interest is created primarily through orchestration, from small → medium → large.
- 1st time thru (bar 16-25, small orchestration) – the melody is played by the flutes and oboes in unison. The accompaniment is a rhythmic pedal point played by the clarinets
- 2nd time thru (bar 27- 34, medium orchestration) – the melody is played by the clarinets and trumpets in unison. The accompaniment is provided by the low WW/Br. mainly playing a pedal point type ostinato. The alto sax + tenor sax + horns play the same rhythmic pedal point previously played by the clarinets. The percussion loop a one bar rhythmic figure (shaker + tom-tom + bass drum)
Halfway though this section, the flutes and mallet percussion play a simple counter melody.
- 3rd time thru (bar 35 – 44, large orchestration) – the ensemble is divided in half with the upper WW/Br. playing the melody while the lower WW/Br. play the rhythmic ostinato accompaniment.
- Coda (bar 45-48) – the orchestration remains the same while the last phrase is repeated over a dominant pedal.
It is worth noting that the biggest sound is achieved from the ensemble with only two unison lines being played. One of the mistakes people often make when composing and orchestrating for the first time is to try and create a big sound with big chords and many different parts. In fact, the opposite generally works much better. Fewer parts, less complexity equals a bigger sound.
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.
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.
I then took some elements from the chord and created some melodic lines like these:
Somewhere in this process I wrote this little waltz theme:
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.
Whenever people talk about an artist “having something to say”, my mind immediately goes to a stereotypical angst ridden artist pontificating at great length in a boring voice about how their latest work is a juxtaposition of a basket weaving and a post modern interpretation of the life of cats…this is not what I mean. In fact, I’m not 100% sure what I mean by that phrase (no, please hang in there, it gets better I promise!), but “have something to say” is about the best way I can think of to express the concept I’m trying to get at. A related concept is one that Aretha Franklin said quite well – R.E.S.P.E.C.T. – respect for yourself as a composer and respect for the students who will play your piece. Great, but what does that mean? Here are some thoughts:
- Write something you are proud to put your name to
- Have a reason for writing the piece. I find it useful to be able to complete the sentence I wrote this piece because…
- Write something that has some depth. Even if it’s a supposedly “fluffy” genre like pop. After all, there is some pop music that says something and some pop music that says nothing (compare perhaps Superstition and What Does the Fox Say?).
A story might help illustrate…
I am a brass player/teacher which means that if I’m assisting at a concert band rehearsal, I often spend most of my time up the back of the room helping out the trumpets, low brass and percussion. Early on in my teaching career I found a couple of things extremely frustrating and I vowed to never write a piece that did either of these things – write percussion parts for only snare drum/bass drum, and to write boring low brass parts. Both of these things, in my opinion, led to a lack of skill development and/or students not wanting to play in band anymore. How on earth can you get trombone players to get excited about music and to improve as players if you write music like this –
I might be exaggerating the flute line a little, but I’ve seen way too many pieces where the low brass play literally that for the WHOLE PIECE! It is just not fair to write that for players. As a band director you also shouldn’t be surprised to you find that your low brass players quit and/or seem incapable of remembering any slide positions or valve combinations if that is what you ask them to play.
Beginner bands tend to have quite a few percussionists. What are you supposed to do when the piece only has a snare drum and a bass drum part and you have 7 percussionists? Triple the parts? I’ve found myself in situations like this where you are trying to get multiple percussionists involved and excited when there are very few parts for them to play – and it’s very difficult. There is a vast array of percussion colors out there – we as composers should use them. It is much easier (in my teaching experience) to have lots of parts but only a few percussionists, or to have lots of percussion instruments required, but you only have a limited number of instruments in your band. As a director, I then just encourage students to find ways to use the gear we have to get as close as possible to the sound the composer was after.
If you are sensing that poor writing for low brass and percussion is something that drives me crackers, you would be right. While I’m listing things that I find frustrating as a band director (and that I try to avoid as a composer) here are two more:
- Boring harmony. Just because you are writing for beginner students does not mean that you can only write straight primary triads in a major key. Personally, I find it very hard to write a piece that sounds fresh and original with just straight (major) primary triads fully voiced. One composer that I love that I think manages to write lots of major triads in an interesting way is Aaron Copland – check out Appalachian Spring
- Boring Form/Mindless Repetition. Repetition is good – compositionally it is one of the ways to tie a piece together and for beginner bands, it gives them less material to learn. But blanket copy and paste is generally boring and (dare I say it) a bit lazy. Re-voice, re-harmonise, re-orchestrate material when it is repeated and you will create a much more interesting work. I played a great piece with my band yesterday that illustrates this idea quite well – The Forbidden City by Michael Story. The same melody is presented 4 different ways, which creates a simple yet interesting piece.
Next time, I will post about a bunch of pieces I’ve written and what I was trying to say. It’s bound to be the most anticipated blog post of the year!
Remember – if you liked this post and found it helpful, tell your friends, if not, tell your enemies. 😉