A sample of the new concerto

 

British American Conductor Composer Stephen P Brown writes a concerto for bass clarinet and stringsMy next composition isn’t quite ready yet.

But I really like it and want to share it with you NOW.

So, there’s a sample below!

It may seem my 7 year #PsalmQuest has been on hiatus and maybe you even thought I’d given up already.

Well, I was ahead of schedule so after all the Christmas performances I did take some time off over Christmas and New Year to visit lots of people up and down East Coast USA, and then I embarked on my long-awaited Concerto for Bass Clarinet and strings.

It’s almost ready and we all have to be thankful to Calvin Falwell and Diana Hessinger for commissioning this piece upfront, as well as all the bass clarinet players around the world who are signing up for first year rights to perform – it’s very exciting being involved in such a forward-thinking, risk-taking consortium. Thank you!

So, without further ado, click on the video below for a sneak preview:

What do you think? Tell me below… if you dare!

Would you like to be part of the commissioning consortium? It’s very easy: promise to perform it at least once and send us some proof, basically.

Let me know in the comments below if you’re interested and I’ll make sure you and Calvin are connected – he has all the details.

Thanks for listening, and here’s looking forward to the full monty in the next week or two!

#PsalmQuest Bass Clarinet Joint Commission!

Well, this turned into an amazing project!

A local performer reached out to me and said “We should work together!” He was very generous in sharing what a good reputation I have amongst some of his colleagues, so with my esteem duly stroked I said, “Sure!”

Bass Clarinets rule!

clarinette familleTurns out Calvin Falwell is a Bass Clarinet geek. Geeks are cool these days, so that is a compliment. It is also a compliment because I used to play bass clarinet myself when I was 12. You can hear a little about that story on the video below. You can imagine how excited I was when Calvin suggested I write a concerto for bass clarinet and strings.

YES!

Well, some international celebrity solo musicians have the label backing and royalty income to pay for commissions out of their own pockets, whereas the vast majority of enthusiasts and professionals like Calvin don’t. He is a remarkably busy orchestral and opera clarinetist with a hefty teaching schedule at the University of South Florida as well, so I’m thrilled to be working with him.

But how can we make this work? Well, speaking of thrills, I’m trusting that whatever I compose will be thrilling for you, too. Perhaps there’s a way we can partner up and not only produce a piece of music that ROCKS (Calvin’s term), but that we can perform and record – possibly even put on film.

Many small parts = one HUGE outcome

(Click it to tweet it)

As I state in the video below, many small contributions can make a much bigger impact than one or two large grants. So instead of finding someone who might generously donate $1,200 for this piece, why don’t we pool a tiny portion of our own resources together and make it happen much sooner!

Think about that – the more people you share the video below with, then that many more people can participate in jointly commissioning this new concerto! We all win!

  • A fabulous new piece of music gets composed
  • It then gets performed, possibly as part of the Festival of Psalms in May
  • We can get it professionally recorded (and I’ll even send you a CD if you put up $100) so you don’t have to put up with a computer generated MIDI audio file

AND,

  • If you share the video below with enough folk, we can get it filmed and put on Youtube, too – with your name as one of the commissioners or contributors!

Past success:

The last time I wrote a piece of music and invited you to participate, we pooled together more than 650% of the intended budget! 6.5 times the amount I was expecting. This goal is somewhat higher but I think we can still achieve it (especially if you know any clarinet players!) Share the project several times over the next month, and we could even exceed our goal 🙂 Wouldn’t THAT be terrific!

Here –

Watch the video and see what it’s about, what you get, and how you can help others participate:

You can help Conductor Composer Stephen P Brown write a Concerto for Bass Clarinet and Strings

#PsalmQuest 10 – Mirror 2 for solo harp

Writing this piece of music was probably one of the most enjoyable projects I’ve ever done. Perhaps that’s why it turned out to be a good one.

The harp can be a daunting instrument: it is large yet delicate, piano-like but not a piano, strings plucked with four fingers per hand not hammers hit by five fingers.

However, the learning process about harp technique was made considerably easier by Jacqueline Pollauf, who has kindly posted a list of guidelines online.

Anna Kate Mackle, Florida Orchestra

Anna Kate Mackle, Principal Harpist of the Florida Orchestra

But I must admit, I also cheated a little – I asked Anna Kate Mackle, Principal Harpist of the Florida Orchestra, for some input. Back in the mid 80s, Anna Kate and I were both in the New Jersey Youth Symphony and also attended the same summer camp in North Carolina, the Eastern Music Festival. It was such a terrific six weeks of intense music activity that we hardly saw each other, and when I moved back to the UK a few years later we lost touch until I moved to Tampa Bay some 20 years later. (EMF was so good, Anna Kate now teaches there every Summer).

Anyway, Anna Kate enthusiastically shared her perspective on a couple of corners during the creation of Mirror 2 and so I couldn’t resist but dedicate the piece to both her and Jacqueline. I do hope they’ll both find occasions to play the piece at some point (Maybe during next year’s Festival of Psalms).

Perhaps another reason this piece turned out so well is that I have a kind of fondness for the harp. Whilst in college in London I dated a harpist and spent a lot of time carrying and transporting her harp all over London and Kent. She attended the Royal College of Music and I attended Trinity College of Music, but we didn’t let that rivalry get in the way as we were both members of the Kent County Youth Orchestra (upper age limit 21), and my mom & her dad worked together at Kent Music School!

(Come to think of it, I’m pretty sure being a percussionist very used to carting about large and heavy instruments came in pretty handy during that relationship!)

Stephen P Brown has a history with the harpAnyway, in the past month or so I’ve learned a great deal more about the harp than I already knew (such as multiple note harmonics per hand) and tackled this composition with a different kind of energy. As one independent industry reviewer commented, the piece is “beautifully haunting.”

Mirror 2 is based on psalm 38 which is structured in 5 sections, namely A, B, C, then B again and finally A again. To me, that’s a mirror image. I don’t know if there’s a formal musical structure out there that imitates a mirror, but I’m not bothered about that – I’m calling it a Mirror in the same way that many pieces are called Sonata or Rondo based on the music’s structure.

By now you know that my compositions, although currently rooted in a more traditional Russian Romantic idiom, are far from normal. Typically we associate the harp with angels, prettiness, light cotton candy, beautiful sweeps and whooshes, and happy weddings.

So this piece is dark, low, deeply emotional and far from angelic! Each of the five sections of Psalm 38 are about Prayer or Pain. See Longman & Garland’s commentary for more details.

Use the Reverbnation player below to listen to the piece (it starts quietly) and then see if you agree with George’s assessment below. Let me know in the comments what you think.

I’m giving the sheet music for this piece away for free for an entire week, so if you know any harp players, be sure to send them this post using the share buttons below so they can download it and try it out. Both you and I would love to know what they think of it, right?!

Listen here:

Click here to get your copy of the sheet music.

So, do you agree with George?

George Algozzina likes Mirror 2 by Stephen P Brown

George Algozzina is, amongst other things, a tenor in the Clearwater Chorus

“My life has been truly affected and enriched this morning when listening to Stephen’s new song, ‘Mirror 2.’ It was wonderful to awaken and experience an entire day’s worth of feelings and emotions in just a few minutes through a truly amazing and beautiful musical composition. I do not know the emotional reaches or spiritual intentions Stephen has for his piece, but it took me from an ominous (almost hopeless) place…to one of acceptance…and then to one of self-awakening and the chance of peace, tranquility, and hopefulness. Thank you, Stephen, for making a difference in this moment and in my life!”

– George Algozzina

 

Add your own thoughts below…

 

Quest #9 – Perspective

British American Conductor Composer Stephen P Brown writes a composition for bass clarinet and drum kitThis was an odd composition that kind of came out of nowhere, but ended up being the ninth composition in my psalm composition quest.

And it’s a little strange, being written for bass clarinet and drum kit.

Uh-huh.

I met Calvin Falwell recently and during our chat he mentioned a project he and his USF Faculty colleague Robert McCormick were undertaking. I know Robert and was therefore interested.

Vox Novus commission lots of new music from composers for a project called “Fifteen Minutes of Fame.” Composers submit brand new compositions no longer than one minute (60 seconds) and 15 of them are selected and joined together to form one piece of music.

Crazy?! But awesome 🙂

So, after witnessing Calvin’s playing in Joseph Hallman’s Bass Clarinet Concerto last weekend at the University of South Florida, I came home and researched the Vox Novus project. Many hours later, the 1-minute piece is finished and submitted!

Here’s the program note that went with it (maximum 50 words):

“Perspective” was written for Calvin Falwell and Robert McCormick, who play the composer’s own primary instruments: clarinet and percussion. Musical influences come from a variety of sources, including Psalm 14 which is in four sections: Foolishness, God’s perspective, Prophetic perspective, and hope. A Vox Novus commission, it is 59 seconds.

As the closing date isn’t until mid-March and each piece submitted must be original and never performed before, I offer you a computer-generated recording (it’s missing several sound effects in the score), but no sheet music, yet.

Here’s the piece:

Interestingly, this sudden spurt of energy and creativity actually left me with sparse inspiration and incentive during the next day’s scheduled composition session! Beware spurts of creativity! They may drain you for tomorrow… [Click it to tweet it] No matter, onward.

Now it’s your turn:

In the comments below, let me know

  1. Why you like or dislike this composition.
  2. What you think I could have done better.
  3. Which of the other requests should I consider? Click here to see the list.

How I compose 3 – Chords

Guitar chords

How to play a chord on a 6-string guitar

“A chord in music is any harmonic set of three or more notes that is heard as if sounding simultaneously.” (Wikipedia, accessed August 7, 2013)

To me, chords form the shell of a piece of music – the walls and roof of a house, so to speak. For me, this is the most difficult part of composing and always has been. Possibly because I’m a percussionist and therefore spent a lot of time focusing on rhythmic patterns and combinations rather than harmonic.

Harmony?

“Harmony is the use of simultaneous pitches (tones, notes), or chords. The study of harmony involves chords and their construction and chord progressions and the principles of connection that govern them. Harmony is often said to refer to the ‘vertical’ aspect of music, as distinguished from melodic line, or the ‘horizontal’ aspect.” (Good old Wikipedia again, accessed August 7, 2013)

Many composers, particularly song-writers such as Lady Gaga [despite her marketing style she really is a very good song-writer. My friend in NYC who knew her on the circuits before the fame will attest to that as well] start with a melody and work from there. I’ve done that sometimes, but as I know harmony is a weakness of mine I’m focusing on that first.

Chords are like a building's frame

Chords form the musical walls within the predetermined structure.

So, when composing a piece of music, I need to establish what the walls and roof are made of. This is the harmony, which is made up of chords. The content of the psalm or story always influences the harmony, particularly if the piece is to be in a minor key (sad-like) or a major key (happier than minor).

Outside my composition, administration, booked activity time, I’m studying various harmony books to build on what I learned many years ago. Over the past few years I revisited the ABRSM music theory guides (awesome material, by the way) and looked through many of my high school and college notes and texts, including Walter Piston‘s mammoth treatise. Now I’m fascinated by Tchaikovsky‘s guide and Rimsky-Korsakov‘s manual.

Next I’ll be delving into Schoenberg‘s “Fundamentals” and after that, will take a more serious approach to Walter Piston’s and dive into Persichetti‘s 20th Century Harmony. The plan is that by the end of Year 2 of this project I’ll have a pretty firm grasp on traditional harmony.

Enough context – how do I actually compose? Once I’ve got my ‘mood’ (happy or sad) I then consider the instrumentation. Some instruments are more sonorous in some keys rather than other. In addition, the keys themselves have characteristics, even colour (a form of synesthesia).

Once the key is established, I play around with various chord progressions: “Does chord I sound better after chord V (we use Roman Numerals a lot in Western music)? Or would chord II sound better? Hmm. But if I follow it with chord III, II doesn’t sound that great in this key. I’d better stick to chord I.”

“Unless I go to chord V again…”

This way I could end up with a pattern of chords that last 4, 8, 12, 16, 20 or any other number of ‘bars’ or ‘measures’. How do I know what a bar or measure is? That works in tandem with choosing the chords:

This is a medley/mixture of waltzes (3 beats) and marches (2 or 4 beats), as well as a rather talented trombonist @ 7mins

A happy dance might be grouped in 3 little beats (think of a waltz by Strauss) whereas a march would definitely be grouped in 4 steady beats. Sometimes the story is not that obvious and 4, 5 or even 2 beats grouped together sound better. At what speed? Again, depends on both the story and the chord progression.

I’m exhausted. You?! Next article in this series will demonstrate how I get a tune (or melody) out of the chord progression. To me, melodies are like a journey through the house, moving from room to room or dancing/ sitting in one spot.

New psalm composition #6: Warrior Peace

Well, this was an unexpected mammoth!

(If you are not aware of my current composition quest, click here to read the introduction.)

I knew that composing for larger ensembles would take time, and was sort of risking things a little when I decided to write for a larger-than-normal ensemble but I didn’t plan for this piece to take a full month. Think of a chamber orchestra that plays Mozart and Haydn symphonies. Then take away all the string players. That’s what this composition is for! It’s not a standard combination of instruments, so I decided to call it a “Chamber Orchestra Non-Strings” ensemble. Says what it is, right?!

Conductor Composer Stephen P Brown completes composition #6 in his 7 year questThe actual difficulties were not the size of the ensemble, or the tone colours I was exploring. It was not even hard to distribute voices or create strong or interesting textures. Actually, the hardest part was the harmony – the chord progression.

It seems like I would have had as much trouble with this composition if it was for solo cello as for a large ensemble.

This piece is based on Psalm 144. It’s structure (as explained previously) is in six sections with two of them repeated: A B C, A C D. In summary, the story starts out with “bold praise” followed by a reflection on how fleeting life is in the scheme of things. Then there’s a request that God lead the battle and if the pray-er’s side prevails, then the author will sing another song of [bold] praise. Finally, the nerves settle in as there’s another prayerful request that God get involved but the author begins to dream about future possibilities, especially the peaceful joy of living that soothes the people after a warrior (in this case, God) has won a victory.

Stephen P Brown Composition Warrior Peace

Psalm 144 reflects on the peace that follows a warrior’s victory in battle.

I started writing (I’ll explain what that means in my next “How I compose” post) but didn’t like it, so deleted it and started again. And again. And again. Six iterations of section A before I got into a groove. Section B, the fleetingness of life, is hardly fleeting but was very satisfying to write and contains some of my favourite parts of this composition. Section C was fun and as a timpanist, I could not resist basing it on a drum-based warrior-like call-to-arms song (even though the word “drum” does not appear anywhere in the entire Bible! Check out opposing responses to that here and here.)

Section A repeats, then Section C repeats.

The last section, D, also went through several iterations before it eventually settled as a chorale. Chorales are a form of four-part harmony that Bach used a great deal to explore (define and break) some basic rules of composition, including harmony and voice-leading (making each part tuneful, singable, and likable). Most composition students study and experiment using the chorale form but it can also be a beautiful entity unto itself. So the last section begins with solo flute, moves into the chorale proper, and ends with a joyful upbeat melody (that reminds me of the March at the maze scene in Harry Potter IV:)

Anyway, I like this composition. It passed the ‘run-through’ test (forcing my wife to sit through it and give feedback) and so here it is for your listening pleasure:

Click here to get your copy of the score and parts (and give a copy to your local orchestra if you’d like to hear it live!)

Please let me know in the comments below what you think – your feedback is important, helpful, and usually quite fun to read. Thank you!

How I compose: Step 2 – Instrumentation

A couple of weeks ago I shared how I start composing each of the pieces in my composition quest. It seemed to be a popular post!

So after I’ve read the psalm, understood its meaning through commentary, and established the structure for my piece, the next step in composing music for me is choosing the instrumentation.

Instrumentation.

The purpose of this quest is to improve my composing skills. One of my dream goals is to finish the quest by writing a piece of music based on Psalm 33 for large chorus and full orchestra. That’s a lot of people and parts, and like an Olympic Triathlete or Astronaut, there is a ton of preparation. Knowing the insides and out of every instrument, including the human voice, is imperative before tackling a huge opus.

That’s partly why this quest will take 7 years and 150 pieces – writing for solo and small groups of instruments will teach me a great deal about how those combinations work together and how they don’t. Think of Ravel’s “masterpiece” Bolero. Familiar with it? Very popular nowadays but guess what – it was an exercise. Maurice Ravel wrote the piece to learn what different instrumentation combinations would sound like. He never meant it to be a concert hall piece, or a film score! (10, starring Dudley Moore and Bo Derek). Below is a truly awe-inspiring ensemble Blast! performing Bolero:

 

Therefore, for this first year I am selecting mostly small chamber music ensembles for my instrumentation – a wind quintet, a brass quintet, a string quartet, trios, duets, solos. Piece #6 is a little more ambitious as I’m combining both the winds and brass together. In fact, it’s written for “Chamber Orchestra Non-Strings!” Think of a chamber orchestra that plays Mozart or Haydn, and take away all the violins, violas, cellos and double basses. I’m composing for everyone else.

Conductor Composer Maestro Stephen P Brown / Swedish Chamber Orchestra

Swedish Chamber Orchestra

There is lots of string music out there, but not much just for the winds and brass, so hopefully this instrumentation will work and it will become a part of the normal orchestral repertoire.

But for those of you waiting for a large orchestra piece… Sorry! You’re gonna have to wait awhile. At least another year or two.

Right. Time to get back to the music…

Thanks for reading.

 

How I compose: Step 1

dna structure musical composition stephen p brown spb

The structure of DNA forms the foundation of physical life. Music also needs a structural foundation.

I am now working on the 6th piece in my composition quest. This is not the first time I’ve composed music but in the past I have approached pieces from a variety of angles: systematically using someone else’s process, systematically using someone else’s process that I adapted slightly, systematically using a process I developed myself (which begs the real question: is there anything brand new, or is everything an adaptation of what we’ve already experienced?) and there were even pieces that I approached system- and process-free; meaning, I just sat and wrote something.

However, in order to accomplish my current task it makes sense to stick with a systematic approach, and each of the 6 pieces that exist in this project so far have been put together starting with its “source structure.”

Step 1: Structure.

You may be aware by now that for a variety of reasons I chose the poems in the Book of Psalms as my inspiration to compose music that will improve my skills. (“Psalm” in English means “Song” so think of the Book of Psalms as an anthology of song lyrics! However, when translating into English most Bibles rightfully focus on the content and meaning of the text and ignore the temptation to maintain any of the original Hebraic meter or rhyme.)

So, I look at my listed of psalms sorted by type and calculated for even distribution, and read the next psalm on the list. For piece #6 it is psalm #144. After a couple of readings I usually sort of get what its about, but to make sure I also read an old narrative text by R.E.O. White (A Christian Handbook to the Psalms) that summarizes the poem and puts it into context alongside other psalms and stories in the Bible.

Next, I carefully look at the overview and detailed analysis as prepared by Longman and Garland in their edition of  the revised (2008) “Expositor’s Bible Commentary” Volume 5, a massive and heavy volume that contains detailed topical, language, structural and historical contexts of every psalm – all 150.

So far I have used the Longman and Garland structural analysis as the foundation for the structure of my compositions. For piece #6 psalm #144 the structure has three main parts with poetic meter and rhyme (in the original Hebrew language) divided up as follows:

  • Section A (Hymn of Praise)
  • Section B (Human Need)
  • Section C (Prayer for God’s involvement)
  • Section A’ (Hymn of Praise)
  • Section B’ (Prayer for God’s involvement)
  • Section C’ (Prayer for Blessing on God’s people.)

Well, I like to keep things consistent only to make my life easier, so based on the section titles above I’m restructuring the structure to: A B C A C D. This will tell me to use the same theme/ melody/ style/ for both sections called “A – Hymn of Praise” and “C – Prayer for God’s Involvement.” Sometimes this is sufficient but these section titles don’t really tell me what the psalm is saying, so I keep a note of what the author is expressing, such as:

  • A – Bold praise
  • B – Fleetingness of life
  • C – Lead the battle
  • A – Promise of wild abandon praise (a new song will be composed!)
  • C – Re-request for deliverance
  • D – The peace and results of winning

And now I have the structure of my musical inspiration.

Next week: either composition #5 will be published (the piece that started out as a traditional choral work but didn’t end up that way) or I’ll share step 2 of how I compose… which would you prefer?

Next piece: Wind Quintet 2

Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet

Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet

 

Yes, I’m forging ahead!

Why? Because I know that as I improve my composition skills (the purpose of this entire project) I am learning how instruments sound and work together and I will be wanting to compose for larger combinations of instruments, such as a full orchestra. Writing such a piece will take a lot more time. If I can get ahead in the project now, it will allow some flexibility for taking longer on the bigger pieces.

For example, this next piece is a Wind Quintet. That’s the standard combination of woodwind instruments (plus French Horn) found in most Western ensembles – flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon. However, in this piece the five performers are required to play a total of 11 instruments.

Huh?

There is something in the music world known as ‘doubling’. This is when a performer can play more than one instrument, usually related to their main instrument. For example, a flute player may also play the piccolo, or the alto flute. A bassoon player may also play the deep, funky contrabassoon.

So, in my composition “Wind Quintet 2” each of the woodwind performers are asked to play their most common ‘doubling’ instruments at some point. Only the French Horn is the stabilizing timbre (or, tonal quality).

Now, about the music…

 

Click here to get your copy of the score and parts

It is based on Psalm 91, one of six categorized as a Confession of Trust according to Matt Baker (accessed April 13, 2013).

Again, I’ve structured the music around the structure of the psalm, which provided an engaging framework to work with:

According to the Longman and Garland expository commentary, the structure is as follows:

  • A – Invitation to the Protection of God
  • B – Forms of protection (there are 5)
  • A’ – Another invitation to the Protection of God
  • B’ – More forms of protection (there are 3)
  • C – The oracle of Salvation

Do you know what that means to me? Theme and Variations! Like this:

  • Theme
  • Variation 1
  • Variation 2
  • Variation 3
  • Variation 4
  • Variation 5
  • Theme
  • Variation 6
  • Variation 7
  • Variation 8
  • Embellished Theme

Excellent!

Oh, one more musical point:

Part of verse 2 of the psalm reads:

My refuge and my fortress: my God; in whom I trust

The last verse of the Oracle, or Edict, is this text, which I have altered ever so slightly:

With long life I will satisfy

I’ll show him my salvation.

So the musical theme (or, melody) is actually based on these words combined –  you could almost use them to sing along with the theme!

I’m sure there’s an official Compositional Device or term for doing that, but at this point that doesn’t matter. What matters is the fact that such a technique exists, works, and it is in this piece.

 

New piano solo – Covered

Here is my psalm composition quest’s third piece of music:

Click here to get your copy of the score
For those of you “Psalmsters” following along with this project, you’ll know that this piece of music is based on Psalm 32. This psalm explains how sin is not eliminated, but covered from God’s view. Hence the title of the piece “Covered.”

The number 3 plays an important part throughout the psalm, and therefore my piece has lots of three’s in it as well. The introduction, for example, consists of 3 notes.

Constructing this piece was most interesting. There are clear elements in the psalm that include instruction, experience and even some words of wisdom from God. It’s funny that the structure of this psalm is more of a mirror than my last piece A Brass Mirror, but we won’t worry about that (Ah, the quirks of ‘artistic license!’)

British American Conductor Composer Stephen P Brown solo piano Covered

After the “early morning” introduction, Section A is about forgiveness. It is followed by a lesson from the author’s experience (B) and an explanation of a promise (C). The middle section is God sharing his promise of wisdom (D), and then we get another lesson (B) and explanation (C) before the author shares his happiness and excitement at being forgiven (A).

For some reason the audio elements of this piece are like an upturned pyramid: What should be the highest point of the structure (the middle) is actually the lowest. I just can’t imagine God speaking with a high-pitched voice, so it appears in Covered with a low but clear rumbling.

My wife likes this piece even more than the famous Not Rach 3 which had its premiere in early 2011, just before my move to Florida. That’s saying something. And I’m very pleased to dedicate this composition to some very engaged and loyal fans. (Thanks for participating in my little reward campaign – your goodies are on their way!)

What about the next piece? It’s a Wind Quintet with 11 instruments.

Yeah – we’ll figure that one out next week 🙂