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.

 

Dedication.

This week I came across a fascinating exploration of the history of King Arthur’s England. There is so much myth and legend surrounding our dreamy esteem of this perfect man that I’ve often wondered if he really existed.

Don’t get me wrong – I enjoy the knights in shining armor adventures, and one day hope to rid my inhibitions, dress up as a medieval knight, and accompany my wife to a Renfaire (a common American festival that revives many periods of history and fantasy into an entertaining exhibition complete with audience participation, jousts, mead and glass blowing, etc). But until that day arrives, I’ll just basque in the occasional archaeological documentary and fantasy movies between Bourne, Matrix and Darling Buds of May reruns.

Apart from the fact that the author Francis Pryor totally debunked the majority of English history (such as the Venerable Bede‘s account, the lack of invasion, and the existence of King Arthur as anything but a real person), one of the most fascinating aspects of his study was the development of the English language. Although basically Germanic, much Latin, French and Celtic has been adopted as much through fashion as through settlement. Apparently.

Words like stylish, abdicate, aid, and desire all derive from Latin whereas trendy, abandon, help and want are Germanic.

And this got me thinking…

My first two compositions in my new Psalm Composition Project were both dedicated to specific people. Dedication. What does that mean?

According to Merriam Webster (American English), dedication means:

  • a devoting or setting aside for a particular purpose.
  • a name and often a message prefixed to a literary, musical, or artistic production in tribute to a person or cause.
  • self-sacrificing devotion.
  • a ceremony to mark the official completion or opening of something (as a building).

According to Oxford (British English), dedication means:

  • the quality of being dedicated or committed to a task or purpose: his dedication to his duties
  • the action of dedicating a church or other building: the dedication of a new city church
  • an inscription or form of words dedicating a building, book, etc. to a person or deity: A faintly engraved inscription or dedication. The hardback edition contained a fulsome dedication to his wife.

And according to Macquarie (Australian English), dedication means:

  • the act of dedicating.
  • the fact of being dedicated.
  • an inscription prefixed or attached to a book, etc., dedicating it to some person.

(Not that regionalization will matter much longer: each country’s Google sites [Google.com, Google.co.uk, Google.com.au] are displaying the same three dictionaries, so it won’t be long before we have a truly universal English language).

Clearly, dedicating a piece of music to someone is a commonly accepted practice amongst English-speaking cultures. I like to think that when I dedicate my music to someone, it is a actually combination of the definitions above: a devotion, a commitment, and an act of dedicating.

But a dedication to whom?

In my case, I like to dedicate my music to people who are important to me; People who have had a significant impact in my life. The first piece in this psalm composition project was dedicated to Gregory Ruffer, a peer whose honest feedback actually prompted the development of the project in the first place… that’s a pretty important and significant impact!

The second piece was dedicated to my college friend Jim Stretton, who through the years has helped me appreciate orchestral brass instruments. He was also one of the first people in my adult (post high school) life who extended kindness by inviting me to sublet a room in his house-share. It was the first time I moved out of my parents’ home and another significant and important event in my life.

British American Conductor Composer Stephen P Brown with fans after a concert

Chatting with fans after a concert

However, in that same piece I also demonstrated my gratitude to many other individuals who have helped me understand and appreciate low brass instruments. Several probably don’t even know it, but I was paying close attention to them, their playing skills and techniques, and I was listening.

As I embark on the third piece in this project, a piano solo, to whom will I dedicate it? One idea: some of the most important people in my life today – those who like my music, support my activities, and loyally read my posts & emails. For want of another term, my Fans! If you consider yourself a fan, please watch the video at the link below and afterwards select one of the opportunities to have my next composition dedicated to you. Seriously!

http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/stephenpbrown/i-will-dedicate-my-next-composition-to-you

 

Next Piece: A Brass Mirror

According to the countdown clock on this page there are now LESS than seven years for me to complete the whole project (click here to find out what the project is all about). All is well, though – I seem to be on track. Already I’ve completed two compositions in this massively huge project, and here’s the latest one:

 

This piece is based on Psalm 143, which is one of the many Lament psalms (58 in all). It has a clear structure, thanks to Longman & Garland’s commentary, and that made constructing the piece very simple. It starts with an introduction, then to a conversational Prayer requesting righteous thinking and behavior (let’s call that Section A), followed by an actual hymn-like Lament (B) – a time when the author recognized his own mistakes and sinfulness. Then the psalmist petitions for help (a variation of Section B) and finally returns to another prayer for righteousness (a slight variation of Section A again). I then closed the piece with a shortened reprise of the introduction.

Conductor Composer Maestro Stephen P Brown composes a piece for brass trio based on psalm 143 with an ABBA structureSeveral times I toyed with the idea of writing in the style of a disco beat, purely based on the structure above (A, B, B, A) but decided against it 😉 Instead, the piece is traditionally harmonic with a few Russian romantic twists and turns, but nothing harmful and not quite Stravinskian or minimalist.

What I do find interesting is the instrumentation. I wanted to tackle the brass section of the orchestra as it’s something I’ve not done since college. My friend James Stretton shared some thoughts and advice, and I wrote the piece for brass trio: horn, trombone and tuba. I think it’s a wonderful combination and with the right players, instruments and tonal quality, will sound mellow yet weighty. Love it. Thanks, Jim!

I dedicated the piece to him, but also wanted to acknowledge those folk in my life who helped me understand the horn, trombone and tuba (whether they know it or not), so I listed their names in the score, too. Thank you, folks. Perhaps you had a bigger impact on me than I’ve let on to date.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy this piece. If you’d like a copy of the score and parts, you can get it for free for one week only at the link below. Be sure to share this post around, especially if you have any brass players following/friending you!

https://www.stephenpbrown.com/compositions/a-brass-mirror/

 

Do you ‘wing it’?

Setting up a plan of action really does seem to work, wouldn’t you agree?

As the Psalm Setting Quest was formulating, for fun I figured out a way to determine in which order I would use the psalms to compose music to. A few columns, sorts and ranking formulas were added to a spreadsheet and “voilà!” an evenly mixed distribution of each psalm type. There’s actually one psalm type (Prophetic) that has just one psalm in it and I know this ranking system works when that psalm (#50) appears right in the middle of the list, as the 75th piece of music I will write.

An added benefit of using a spreadsheet to create the order, is that due dates could be easily scheduled, and even completion tracking could be setup to be very user-friendly (just check out the stats on the right →). If this all sounds computer-geeky-like to you, just remember that there’s some truth to the old cliché that “music and mathematics” go well together 😉

Well, the crux of it is that I started composing early, and have actually now finished my first piece.

It is Psalm 19.

I gathered several sources together to help me determine the content and perspective of each psalm, and according to a Wikipedia entry, the first few verses of this “Song of Praise”

present the heavenly bodies and their movement as a universal witness to the glory of God that is understood by people of every language. The language connects day and night as a continuous presentation. The words suggest energy, strength, joy, and light.

So I zeroed-in on that last sentence, and used it as the composition’s title: “Energy, Strength, Joy & Light.” I created four verses in this piece, one for each of those characteristics, and interjected a chorus using the meditative prayer in the last verse of the psalm. There are moments of ‘clumsiness’ particularly in the Strength verse and the chorus (a rising pattern on the vowel ‘o’ as in “of” – not an easy task to sing well!) which are hints at the psalm’s admittance of man’s presumptuousness when compared alongside God’s creations.

The instrumentation of this piece was determined with a very close outcome, by you. Click here to check out the poll results.

I started composing, wary of contrary motion, harmonic sequencing and melodic interest for all the performers. Below is the computer-generated audio (never an attractive proposition, especially when it comes to representing human voices), and I am making the sheet music available for free for one week only – go and print it now and give it to someone!

“Energy, Strength, Joy & Light”

[ca_audio url=”https://www.stephenpbrown.com/audio/019_EnergyStrengthJoyLight_DEMO.mp3″ width=”500″ height=”27″ css_class=”codeart-google-mp3-player” autoplay=”false”]

Having a plan in place, complete with 7 years’ worth of due dates, has created a great foundation for this massive project. Even though I am now ahead of schedule (I wasn’t even planning to start writing until my birthday this year, but couldn’t wait) there is some sort of sense of accomplishment in checking off a task.

Do you use project plans for your hobby or craft? Or do you just ‘wing it’ and see where it takes you? Let me know in the comments below.

I’ve got 7 years left – #PsalmQuest Compositions

Some of my compositions were recently submitted as materials for another Masters-level qualification which would permit me to teach higher education in the USA – something my experience and approach is well suited to. The application was not approved, and that hurt. When I shared the assessor’s report with my select circle, most of the reactions were along the lines of “These comments make no sense,” and “I haven’t got a clue what he’s on about.” One comment suggested how the assessor seemed to be looking for negative things to say and ended up saying the same thing about each piece that was submitted. There is no recourse to appeal the assessment, and therefore I particularly reveled in one friend’s description of the assessor as a “Schmuck” (all in good jest to lighten the weight I’d put on his career-jolting opinion.)

A colleague in the academic world seemed to corroborate but put it like this:

You have wonderful ideas and a sense of exploration. Maybe there is a voice in your head wondering if anyone will like what you are doing so you play it safe. As with any creative venture, safety does not result in efforts that fully show one’s capability. I also think you have been limited by [composing for] players with modest ability and so you have had to avoid writing anything that pushes the envelope too far. Break out of that. Quiet the voices of questioning that I can imagine are speaking to you and see what happens.

Wow! Nice! Thank you, G!

 

My action plan must be:

  • Something that doesn’t require seeking the participation of musicians I can’t afford or are of “modest ability.”
  • A project that doesn’t require coming to you with my hand out asking for funds.
  • Something with changing flavours, aromas and colors that last over a long period of time.
  • A project which produces results but is not dependent on what happens to them.
  • Something that can be created with the resources I already have, and that can be shared with you if you’re interested.

 

Major influences:

Heard of Chris Guillebeau? Several years ago he set himself the goal of visiting all the countries of the world by his 35th birthday. He just completed his quest ON his 35th birthday last month. 193 countries in less than 11 years. No-one else has ever accomplished it.

Most of Bach’s work, much of Mozart’s, Beethoven, Verdi, Poulenc, Vaughan Williams, Taverner, Part and a multitude of other composers have written music influenced by the Bible, including two of the most amazing pieces ever: the ultra-famous Messiah by Handel, and the incomparable Belshazzar’s Feast by William Walton (watch below). Even outlying members of the post-WWII British atheist movement, including composers such as Benjamin Britten and John Rutter, often turned to the Bible for source material. So why not me?

 

I recently heard a reading of Psalm 33 and it caught my attention. It is far from famous but its descriptive content is unique. There are many pieces of music in the world influenced by the psalms, but… all of them? Yes. Plenty. But that’s like asking if every country in the world has been visited. Until Chris G set his goal, no one person had visited every country in the world.

My Quest:

To advance my composition skills by writing 150 pieces of music based on each of the 150 psalms by my 50th birthday in 7 years’ time.

How on earth will that get done? I have a plan. [In fact, I’ve already started].

It’s going to be a fascinating journey! I hope you’ll stay the course with me.

 

keep-calm-and-stay-the-course

Update Jan 8, 2014:
Project going VERY well! 13 completed and two more underway. In the meantime, I’ve adopted the hashtag #PsalmQuest to help organize my composition project. Spread the word! [Click it to tweet it]

Update Sept 10, 2018:
Four years of web content got deleted through malware that also infected by backups. Regardless, this project was on hiatus for three years during my Dad’s rather cruel terminal illness (PSP) and I am only now figuring out how to re-incorporate the #PsalmQuest schedule back into my daily routine. I doubt the project will be finished by my 50th birthday, but the important thing for me right now is to simply finish.

 

Tell me in the comments below how you’ve overcome adversity or a big disappointment. Did it spur you into action? Did you setup a project or quest? Did you move onto something completely different? I’d love to hear how you managed to move on with your life. Go on, add a comment, and then share this post so others can benefit, too:

 

People Matter.

What are you working on?

One of the impressive train sets at Northlandz in NJ

Do you have a hobby or skill that you pursue outside of your day job?

Some people build model train sets, others go ice skating. Some folk coach Little League baseball, and others knit.

What’s your hobby?

(Tell me in the comments below).

It’s interesting that over the past 10 days or so something has come to light in my world prompted by several emails following my “Keeping up appearances” post last week. That something is a project. No, a Project. Well, to be perfectly honest, it’s a “Major Project.”

Much of the encouragement and advice you’ve shared in comments, tweets and emails has been very uplifting and very wise. Perhaps the most common public perspective was how incredible it can be to have a mentor or two, and that’s what Tuesday’s post was all about. But several emails fairly unsubtley told me to get my act together, cease and desist the doubt and negativity, and get back to what SPB does best.

Those emails from a handful of well-respected people, plus two from people I’ve never met in person, were intimate and direct. They were and will remain private, but the common thread between them all served the same purpose and mentioned the same solution.

What I was like, once.

I think the purpose of those emails was not so much to get me believing in myself again, but to remind me of who I was – jog my memory of what I was like – lift me above the dark thicket and thorny brush to survey the vast pine forest I’ve been wandering in (musically) for several years, and combine that with all that I’ve learned in recent times. In other words, transition from a floundering find-your-footing thirty-year-old to a mature expert forty-something (My older sister would probably translate that as “Grow up!“) OK, a little deep, perhaps, but isn’t that something we all hanker for once-in-a-while? Maybe that’s been my problem: I’ve been dealing with surface stuff for so long now that I’ve not taken care of the inner, deep things. Whatever your stance on that, I choose to acknowledge that we all have deep, personal issues to learn about, and I’m not going to brush them under the carpet or hide from them anymore (like the British are particularly renowned for!)

However, getting back to the real Me was only the first commonality mentioned in those emails. The second was this: a Major Project.

Yeah, yeah, yeah…

Before you sigh, roll your eyes up and shake your head at yet another SPB attempt at something, we’re not talking about the trite little videos I’ve been publishing over the past few years. No, we’re talking something different – something more in line with “me” – a project that will blow me (and hopefully you) away. This project will be something I can focus my energies on and produce a result that is actually outstandingly SPB-like, not a mediocre copy of what has (or appeared to have) worked for others.

People matter: I love chatting to audiences after a concert.

People matter.

It is clear my music career needs attention. No more fluff. No more scrounging around looking for something to do. Being a conductor is TOUGH because whatever you want to do, you need a bunch of people to do it with. Conducting 1 or 4 people is just dumb, yet finding players to form an orchestra is either nigh impossible outside the higher education environment or it costs a small fortune (believe me: my wife and parents know!) (It can be done, though – remember George Marriner Maull and his creation of the remarkable Discovery Orchestra in my last post?) And composing usually requires an ensemble who will play your music. Good luck with that! Well, I have been blessed: I am VERY fortunate to have many colleagues in the music world who have more confidence in me than I do myself, and they’ve taken on my music and performed it – most recently Jane Rondin of the Zephyrs Wind Quintet in New Jersey, and Alexandra Vago of the Blue Pointe String Quartet in Cleveland, Ohio.

You also matter. Thank you for taking this journey with me.

So I need a project. A big project. Something that will blow me away. Something I can do without relying on other people, and something that does not require me to put my hand out and ask for money. I need a music-related project in which I can find fulfillment.

Funnily enough, the disappointment that sparked this recent series of posts may provide just the right catalyst for that project.

Give me a few more days to figure out some nuances, and I’ll tell you what the disappointment was, and what it and you have spurred me to do.

Shall we say, Friday next week? It’s a date – look out for my next email then.

Your turn:

To help us all focus on what we do well in life, what is your hobby or Major Project right now? And how did you get into it? Write a comment below, and then share this post with your circles of influence – they will want to read what you write!