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 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?

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: