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.
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.
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. 😉