#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/

Please… be our conductor!

Uh-oh!

I completely forgot to write a blog post this week! So, instead, here’s an entertaining video.

If you ever want to be a conductor, the best advice I can offer is to be in the right place at the right time: I hope you find a similar opportunity near you soon!

 

 

My first rehearsal with the Clearwater Chorus went very well this week, and I’m in the middle of composing a piece for solo harp, plus the usual projects and daily grind.

How I compose 3 – Chords

Guitar chords

How to play a chord on a 6-string guitar

“A chord in music is any harmonic set of three or more notes that is heard as if sounding simultaneously.” (Wikipedia, accessed August 7, 2013)

To me, chords form the shell of a piece of music – the walls and roof of a house, so to speak. For me, this is the most difficult part of composing and always has been. Possibly because I’m a percussionist and therefore spent a lot of time focusing on rhythmic patterns and combinations rather than harmonic.

Harmony?

“Harmony is the use of simultaneous pitches (tones, notes), or chords. The study of harmony involves chords and their construction and chord progressions and the principles of connection that govern them. Harmony is often said to refer to the ‘vertical’ aspect of music, as distinguished from melodic line, or the ‘horizontal’ aspect.” (Good old Wikipedia again, accessed August 7, 2013)

Many composers, particularly song-writers such as Lady Gaga [despite her marketing style she really is a very good song-writer. My friend in NYC who knew her on the circuits before the fame will attest to that as well] start with a melody and work from there. I’ve done that sometimes, but as I know harmony is a weakness of mine I’m focusing on that first.

Chords are like a building's frame

Chords form the musical walls within the predetermined structure.

So, when composing a piece of music, I need to establish what the walls and roof are made of. This is the harmony, which is made up of chords. The content of the psalm or story always influences the harmony, particularly if the piece is to be in a minor key (sad-like) or a major key (happier than minor).

Outside my composition, administration, booked activity time, I’m studying various harmony books to build on what I learned many years ago. Over the past few years I revisited the ABRSM music theory guides (awesome material, by the way) and looked through many of my high school and college notes and texts, including Walter Piston‘s mammoth treatise. Now I’m fascinated by Tchaikovsky‘s guide and Rimsky-Korsakov‘s manual.

Next I’ll be delving into Schoenberg‘s “Fundamentals” and after that, will take a more serious approach to Walter Piston’s and dive into Persichetti‘s 20th Century Harmony. The plan is that by the end of Year 2 of this project I’ll have a pretty firm grasp on traditional harmony.

Enough context – how do I actually compose? Once I’ve got my ‘mood’ (happy or sad) I then consider the instrumentation. Some instruments are more sonorous in some keys rather than other. In addition, the keys themselves have characteristics, even colour (a form of synesthesia).

Once the key is established, I play around with various chord progressions: “Does chord I sound better after chord V (we use Roman Numerals a lot in Western music)? Or would chord II sound better? Hmm. But if I follow it with chord III, II doesn’t sound that great in this key. I’d better stick to chord I.”

“Unless I go to chord V again…”

This way I could end up with a pattern of chords that last 4, 8, 12, 16, 20 or any other number of ‘bars’ or ‘measures’. How do I know what a bar or measure is? That works in tandem with choosing the chords:

This is a medley/mixture of waltzes (3 beats) and marches (2 or 4 beats), as well as a rather talented trombonist @ 7mins

A happy dance might be grouped in 3 little beats (think of a waltz by Strauss) whereas a march would definitely be grouped in 4 steady beats. Sometimes the story is not that obvious and 4, 5 or even 2 beats grouped together sound better. At what speed? Again, depends on both the story and the chord progression.

I’m exhausted. You?! Next article in this series will demonstrate how I get a tune (or melody) out of the chord progression. To me, melodies are like a journey through the house, moving from room to room or dancing/ sitting in one spot.

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!

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