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.

 

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/

 

Tried something new recently?

Brasso Profundo - definitely something new.

This new routine is tough!

Getting up an hour earlier every morning isn’t like an on/off switch – it is taking lots of discipline but you know what? I’m getting a lot of work and reading done.

But that’s just one new outcome of this Psalm Setting Quest.

Another one is being adventurous.

If you look through my list of compositions they are mostly for percussion (including piano) and wind instruments. There are a handful of string pieces and one or two that include brass instruments. For some reason, ever since writing a tacky piece for brass quintet, percussion and narrator in college, I’ve avoided composing for brass instruments.

So, I decided to switch things around a little bit and tackle brass instruments head-on!

My buddy Jim Stretton (of Orichalcum and Brasso Profundo) shared some wonderful advice, and to start with I’ll be writing for just horn, trombone and tuba. Once I have some increased familiarity with these instruments, then I can add a couple of trumpets.

Therefore, my next psalm, number 143, will be for a brass trio. This is definitely something new for me.

  • What have you done recently that is new to you?
  • And how has it transformed your life (or not!)?

Let me know in the comments below: