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.
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!
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:
- Listen to some music
- Analyse some pieces I like
- Keep writing. Write anything. Don’t worry about finishing, or if it’s good or bad, just write stuff
- Work through a harmony book (Vincent Persichetti’s Twentieth-Century Harmony to be precise)
- Lather, rinse repeat
I figure sooner or later things will change, hopefully sooner…
Yep, I’ve finished my new piece Odyssey for the second time, and this time it’s personal! [You can read about how I started this piece here, and a progress post here]. How do you finish a piece twice you ask? To answer that, it helps to explain my writing process. (Bear in mind that this is how I tend to work, but everyone is different). My writing process goes like this:
- The initial idea. Where these initial ideas come from, I don’t know. Sometimes they just pop into my head out of the blue, sometimes they come from playing piano and I just hit something or play something that I like or find interesting. Sometimes they come from a kind of musical brainstorming session (i.e. write 3 melodies of 8 bars in 5 minutes), and other times its just from deciding to write a modal blues in G Dorian.
- Development. This is where I take that initial idea and develop it into something longer – maybe an “A” section and an intro
- I get stuck. Surprisingly, this is the part of the process where I get stuck. I’ve run out of inspirational steam, but I’ve only got about 1/3 to 1/2 of the piece written and I don’t know quite where to go from here. You don’t have to be Einstein to guess that this isn’t the fun part of writing. To get unstuck, I try:
- Drinking coffee
- Cleaning my study
- Checking email
- Putting my head in the sand
- After these don’t really help, I try:
- Thinking about the piece structurally – what is the form of this piece going to be?
- What would contrast with what I already have (loud vs soft, fast vs slow, solo vs tutti etc)
- Just write something and not worry too much about whether it’s “good” or not. After all you can edit it later, or chuck it completely if you want
- In fairness to points 3.1 – 3.4, taking a break does help sometimes
- The piece is finished! – for the first time. It’s not really finished, but it feels like it. At this point I’ve got the main pieces in place, right through to the end. It might be sketchy in places, but at least in my head I know what I’m trying to do all the way through. [Here is Odyssey at this point – Odessey – In Progress (concert pitch)]
- Refinement. At this point I edit, cut, smooth, shape, polish, wrestle, hammer, the piece into shape. Sketchy ideas are fleshed out. Often this is particularly true of percussion parts which have often ranged from sketchy to “vague notion in my head” to non-existent. [Here is Odyssey at this point –Odyssey – In Progress #2 (concert pitch)] For me, this stage is iterative – evaluate –> refine –> evaluate —> refine repeatedly until….
- The piece is finished! – for the second time. This time, it really is finished…almost. [Here is Odyssey at this point –Odyssey – In Progress #3]
- Idiot Check. This is where I print out the score (it really is easier to read on paper than on a screen) and check for any silly little errors – missing dynamics/articulations, stuff I forgot to fill in etc.
- Perform/Send to a publisher. I’ll be sending this to a publisher I already have a relationship with. Assuming they want to publish it, it will likely come back with a few editorial suggestions/comments. 90% of the time, you should do what they suggest.
It’s worth re-stating at this point that you should edit your work and don’t be afraid to delete things that don’t work. I went and had lunch after my last post, came back and deleted an 8 bar section that didn’t work. It has also taken a fair bit of “hammering” to get the last 30 bars to work. If you compare versions #2 and #3, you’ll see that the framework has stayed essentially the same, but the detail has changed.
Thanks for reading, I’m off to check for idiots…
It’s finished! Well, not really, but kind of…confused yet?
Since last I posted, here’s what I’ve done. I managed to spend a few hours shortly after finishing my last blog post (here it is) working on my new piece for Concert Band. In that time I did the following:
- Thought of a name – Odyssey
- Wrote a chorale theme to go with the opening fanfare theme
- Decided form-wise to go straight into the chorale following the introduction. It was tempting to go into a rhythmic, march type vibe and just restate the opening melody, but I decided to avoid that approach as I’ve used it before and just felt a little too obvious in this case.
- Setup a score in Finale
- Sketch in the introduction and opening chorale theme
- Decided to score the chorale for just flute and clarinets (+oboe maybe?) the first time through
- For the second time through the chorale, I’m going to give the melody to the a.sax + cl. + f.hn. My intention is to have the remaining brass and lower woodwinds play reasonably static chords to support the melody. The upper voice of this accompaniment may effectively turn out to be a quasi counter-melody.
It has then sat idle for a couple of weeks due to life being crazy and working somewhere else on my “writing day” until today. This morning I’ve spent another couple of hours working on it and you can look at my in progress score here Odessey – In Progress (concert pitch). Here’s what I’ve done this morning:
- Tweaked the tempo slightly from 116 to 108bpm. It just felt a little rushed at 116bpm
- Added the brass to the second time through the chorale. This might not be exactly how it finishes up, but it’s in the ballpark
- Form-wise, it felt to me like the opening fanfare melody should come back twice and that would roughly be the end of the piece. This meant:
- Deciding how to transition from the chorale back into the fanfare theme. I’ve used a classic device whereby the last part of the chorale is restated in longer (augmented would be the fancy music word here) note vales. I’ve also changed the harmony slightly so that the return to a “C” pedal feels like a key change.
- This in turn led to the quasi introduction type section at bar 31-38 with the clarinets playing a simplified version of the fanfare melody, with a “sparkly” response from the fl/ob+tpts.
- At this point, keeping the low brass and woodwinds on the same rhythmic figure for yet another two times through the fanfare melody seems like a long time for beginners to cope with. It’s also a bit boring for the listener. So I’m going to try to “get out” of that rhythmic figure at bar 39. I’m not sure whether I’ll keep the percussion going through here, and/or whether to have the accompaniment be sustained notes or stop time type “hits”
- Getting out of the continuous rhythmic accompaniment at bar 39, also creates more interest at bar 50 when it returns for the final statement of the fanfare theme.
- The piece finishes with the same compositional technique that I used earlier in the piece, namely, restating the end of the theme and then augmenting note values to create a sense of the piece slowing down before the big finish.
At this point, the piece is finished…kind of. I feel at this point that all the main structural elements are in place and that I’ve got a good idea of how it will be scored. If this piece were a table, I feel that I had all the main pieces cutout and stuck together. Now what remains is to sand, polish, and add “pretty bits”. Sp my to do list for this piece is now:
- Resolve the accompaniment at bar 39
- Finish scoring all the woodwind and brass parts. Notice that there is nothing in the bassoon, bass clarinet or baritone saxophone parts yet. These will end up doubling bass lines already present in the trombone/euphonium/tuba parts
- Score the percussion. Again, there is nothing on paper, but I have a good idea in my head of what these will look like. The percussion in this piece will largely augment the woodwind and brass parts, rather than supply an independent voice. This isn’t always the case and if there was a specific independent percussion part I wanted, it would be in the score by now. The percussion will likely end up with:
- Timpani – doubling the pedal bass line. Timpani is great for this as the player doesn’t get tired in the same way that a wind player does when playing for an extended period without a break
- Snare drum, Bass drum, Cymbals – these will play march/fanfare figures. Think John Williams Olympic fanfare type stuff.
- Glock/Vibes – the glock will end up doubling some melodic lines. I’m not really expecting to use the vibes, but it’s easier to have the line there in the score when setting it up just in case. If it’s not used, I’ll just delete it.
- Edit, tweak, refine until I’m happy. E.g. I’m still debating about making bar 37 a 2/4 bar (and losing two beats at this point).
Once that’s all done, I’ll more than likely leave it for a week or so, and come back and look at it again and make sure I’m happy. If not, then more refining, tweaking, editing until I am.
I’m off to have lunch…