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.