#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.

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/

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 is ‘beautiful’ music defined?

This past week my wife asked me to compose something beautiful, preferably for the cello (as that’s her favourite instrument).

I said “What do you mean?”

“Not ‘intelligent’ or clever or busy, just something… beautiful.”

“Meaning what, exactly?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Like, a song that’s nice.”

“Oh, OK!” I said. “I’m right on it!”

 

Er… can you help me?!

 

What do you think she means? Am I displaying an incredible amount of utter ignorance here? I thought some of my choral music is particularly beautiful (especially “Lucy’s Song” using a text by Charles Dickens), and if you’ve heard “A Mother’s Lament” I’m sure you’ll agree that can be classified as ‘beautiful’ too.

But “beautiful music” seems to be a completely subjective matter (click it to tweet it!)

And apparently, what I’ve composed to date is not enough. I have a challenge here, folks, and I have an inkling as to the kind of thing I should be doing, but what are your thoughts? What makes a piece of music “BEAUTIFUL?” What are the characteristics, styles, intentions, moods, etc.? Help me write this piece by leaving a reply below, and I will most certainly dedicate the piece to you! Seriously.

Here’s an example of a cello piece that I think is beautiful. What do you think makes it so?

 

What makes this music “beautiful?”

I’m sure there are specific characteristics that make music ‘beautiful’ but what are they?

Nick Scott believes it is all to do with pacing. What does that mean?

One response on his post suggest “anything that comes from the heart” and I would add “as opposed to the head.” But again, what does that mean? How does a composer determine what someone else would find beautiful?

In response to a post on the Musica Sacra forum, bjerabek suggests the Golden Ratio is at play in anything beautiful. I can see that. I looked into the Golden Ratio during my sojourn at Cleveland State University some ten years ago, but how sad if that were that’s required to make beautiful music – doesn’t that make it “intelligent” or “clever” music?

Just a simple Google search for the most beautiful music in the world doesn’t really help, nor does Classic FM‘s overuse of the adjective.

So I’m wondering, what music do YOU find beautiful? And more importantly, WHY?