#PsalmQuest 11 – String Quartet 2

String Quartet 2 by British American Conductor Composer Stephen P BrownIt feels like forever since I published a #PsalmQuest piece, and I guess it was, really – over a month ago! In fact, I finished composing that last piece at the end of September, so it’s really been 8 weeks.

Some of that time was spent resting, but much of it was actually spent re-writing. This was a difficult piece to extrapolate from the recesses of reality and it saw several completely written-out ideas before I hit the ‘delete’ button on the whole lot. But it’s here now, and it has quite a story to it, methinks…

String Quartet 2 (actually, the title was bothersome for quite some time as well, until I realized how simple it could be) is based on Psalm 97 and whereas the Longman/ Garland commentary has it broken into 4 sections, many other sources actually have it broken into 3. I went with C.E.O White’s “A Christian Handbook to the Psalms” and chose three movements for this piece.

The ideas and concepts behind each movement shifted slightly, and although they started out encompassing three of the more easily defined names for God they each ended up as an intriguing mystery.

Movement 1

is about Yahweh. The opening passages of the psalm reflect glory and affirmation, magnificence and revelation. An overwhelming presence. I thought this could be nicely summed up as “Righteousness.” But, is it mankind assuming his own righteousness or it is God as righteousness?

Musically, this movement is rather awkward but it seems to reflect the unstable authority with which anyone declares themselves as righteousness. The main theme is based on the phrase “I am Righteousness. Don’t you forget it!” This was the hardest movement to complete and it went through multiple manifestations.

Movement 2

is about Adonai, the lord of lords, master of all. Somewhere online I found this also summarized as Justice. Currently true Justice in the Western world is a but of a joke with everyday folk moving at different paces to governments which are operating under different expectations of big Corporations, etc, all under the pretense of harmony. But, is it mankind demanding their own kind of Justice like a petulant child, or is it God declaring the fact that he is going to have justice whether we like it or not?

Musically, this is my favourite movement. It has a slow pulse but that hardly means the music is slow. The main melody is based on the aggressive phrase “Justice! I want Justice!” and leads us into a twisting and turning finger-numbing world of dizzying adventures, with lots of teamwork between the two violinists and a rarely-used key E minor, which is actually the enharmonic equivalent of the key that should be used: Fb minor (seven flats, if you know what that means. Er… no thanks).

Movement 3

is about Elyon, which reflects thoughts of strength, the most high, sovereignty and supremacy. In other words, Judgement. Again, we’re not too clear on who is declaring judgement – it could be one of mankind’s follies, or perhaps it is God reminding us that He actually created everything (in the same way that Bill Cosby once said to his son: “You know I brought you into this world, I can take you out!”)

Musically this movement starts with an actual conversation! The first violin shares with us a little reminiscing, before the cello starts a new conversation whilst the viola and second violin try to keep the topic on track (you’ll hear the “I am righteousness” and “I want Justice!” themes reappear). As the cello and viola head off in a new direction, the two violins stick together until one of them adds a comment and the other tries to stop them “Oh no you don’t!” Eventually, though, everyone’s on board, there’s a big “ta-dah!” in celebration, and then we explore Judgement to the end of time.

I take it back – maybe this last movement is my favourite. It was certainly the quickest to be written after the other two struggled to appear.

Anyway, here it is in its complete form.

Click here to get your own copy of the sheet music

Please leave a comment below letting me know what you think, and if you plan to perform it, be sure to add it to this page: https://www.stephenpbrown.com/concerts/

#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.

Piece #8: Sonata 2 for Viola, Marimba, Piano

This is a fun little ditty!

Evelyn Glennie pioneered solo percussion playing in the Western World, especially the marimba

Another stab at the traditional Sonata Form, this piece is for a trio of performers: viola, marimba and piano. To my thinking, there is not enough marimba included in the standard instrumentation these days, (click it to tweet it) yet like the saxophone or bass clarinet, it has a great many experts and has become a common option thanks to folk like Evelyn Glennie.

Sonata Form Structure

This piece is based on Psalm 102 and although it does not follow a similar structure (the focus of this piece was the structure called “Sonata Form“) I did use the content of the psalm to influence the music.

For example, there seem to be two primary themes running throughout the psalm:

  • “Is” and “Is not”
  • “Meaning” and “Meaninglessness”
  • “Metaphor” and “Cause”
  • “Tangible” (skin, bones, heart) and “Fleeting” (shadows, smoke)

These contrasting ideas helped me create the main and secondary themes: A bustling, fun, busy, strong, emphatic, semi-tangible tune followed by a melody that seems to be a little hidden, unsure, and somewhat unsettling.

Sonata Form Development

Both themes of the sonata repeat in order to establish them in the your mind, and then the development takes off using both themes as the material. However, towards the end there appears to be the appearance of a third more melancholic theme, but in fact it is just a slight variation of part of one of the main themes… can you tell which one?


Click here to get your copy of the score and parts (free for one week only!)

Please share this post, especially with any string players, pianists and percussionists you know – it’s an exciting combination, not too difficult to prepare, and will serve as a very appealing addition to someone’s recital. Thanks.

Next Piece #7: Bagatelle for Violin

This was a surprise!

In my 7 year composition quest, piece #6 took a little over a month to write. This one took a day. Yes. One day!

Solo violin

It helped that the piece was being written for just one instrument alone, which is a complete contrast to Warrior Peace. Another contrast is the style: actually, I’m not too sure where this style came from but it is clearly a “contemporary” piece. I followed my usual system for composing music based on the psalms (Steps 1 & 2 I’ve already shared with you, and step 3 is coming soon) and after composing the closing melody, decided the piece was going to be too long for a “Bagatelle.”

Bagatelle for violin by Stephen P Brown

A non-musical “Bagatelle” is the pinball machine’s predecessor

I could change the title, or change the piece. The melody survived but the decision was made that the six sections before it would be shortened. Normally I write one chord per bar. In this piece, sometimes that happens but mostly it is one chord per note. And bearing in mind a solo violin often only plays one note at a time, the harmony progresses pretty rapidly!

Psalm 112

This composition is based on psalm 112, a wisdom psalm. It is short but has seven sections. In the end, though, the first and last sections in my piece were swapped – I’d rather begin with a curse and end with a blessing. So, here’s the structure:

  • A – Curse on the longings of the wicked
  • B – Blessings of righteousness
  • C – Blessings in adversity
  • B – Blessings of being gracious and compassionate
  • C – Blessings in adversity
  • B – Blessings in righteousness
  • A – Blessedness of those who delight in wisdom

One commentary (Longman and Garland) titled this psalm “The Triumph for Faith” and another (White) titled it “The Gain of Godliness.” Make of that what you will, but the piece is intentionally short and therefore I titled it “Bagatelle” – not after the board game, mind, but the musical form.

Listen

Listen to a computer rendition here (I’d much rather hear it live, and maybe we will next year):

Click here to get your copy of the score. Please share this post with violin players you know, and perhaps one of them will record it at home for us to post!

And please add your thoughts about this solo violin piece in the comments below (be sure to sign in to Disqus using Facebook, Twitter or your email). Do you like the style/ genre? Do you think it is short or long enough? Does it disturb you or make you think or calm you down? Do share your thoughts:

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!

Piece #5: Rescue Me! for choir

USFchoirThe fifth piece in my composition quest was quite an adventure. Definitely surprising.

Rescue Me, Recover Me” is based on Psalm 130, and the title stems from the term “redeem” which this psalm seems to be all about. It has a simple ABAB structure, so knowing that I wanted to write a choral work I began playing with the translated poem (I don’t read Hebraic) and converting the meaningful words into my own poem with rhyme and meter.

Wonderful!

Except that it looked a lot like the verses and chorus of a song.

Never mind. Onwards.

Well, the piece began and I created a simple progression of chords. I had intended the style to be along the lines of a nice scrunchy choral work similar to those of the contemporary American School such as Eric Whitacre and Randall Thompson, so I spent a lot of time studying 9th & 13th chords which made their way into the third verse and chorus.

As the piece developed, a vocal soloist took the opening verse and by the time I was done, I had written a verse-chorus song for vocalist, 3-part choir (soprano, alto and baritone), piano and bass. In addition, the verses and each time the chorus appeared the harmonies were slightly expanded and therefore the melodies slightly altered, too.

So much for my traditional English Choral work!

I don’t have a choir living in my basement, so the audio recording is actually a computer generated “AH” that represents the vocal parts. Of course, if you happen to have access to a choir and a digital recorder, please feel free to have a go and send me the results!

Have a listen here to get the gist of the piece:

[ca_audio url_mp3=”https://www.stephenpbrown.com/audio/130_RescueMeRecoverMe.mp3″ url_ogg=”” skin=”regular” align=”none”]

Click here to get your copy of the score and lead sheet.

Please pass this blog post around so that others can access the music this week – not only might they enjoy the music, but they may be able to get a choir to record it, too. Thank you. You can use the social media buttons below, or just copy and paste the link above. Emails work just as well.

Add a comment below letting me know what you think of this piece – it will help me determine whether or not to stick with the verse-chorus format or have a go at the more traditional style.

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 🙂

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/