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:

 

People Matter.

What are you working on?

One of the impressive train sets at Northlandz in NJ

Do you have a hobby or skill that you pursue outside of your day job?

Some people build model train sets, others go ice skating. Some folk coach Little League baseball, and others knit.

What’s your hobby?

(Tell me in the comments below).

It’s interesting that over the past 10 days or so something has come to light in my world prompted by several emails following my “Keeping up appearances” post last week. That something is a project. No, a Project. Well, to be perfectly honest, it’s a “Major Project.”

Much of the encouragement and advice you’ve shared in comments, tweets and emails has been very uplifting and very wise. Perhaps the most common public perspective was how incredible it can be to have a mentor or two, and that’s what Tuesday’s post was all about. But several emails fairly unsubtley told me to get my act together, cease and desist the doubt and negativity, and get back to what SPB does best.

Those emails from a handful of well-respected people, plus two from people I’ve never met in person, were intimate and direct. They were and will remain private, but the common thread between them all served the same purpose and mentioned the same solution.

What I was like, once.

I think the purpose of those emails was not so much to get me believing in myself again, but to remind me of who I was – jog my memory of what I was like – lift me above the dark thicket and thorny brush to survey the vast pine forest I’ve been wandering in (musically) for several years, and combine that with all that I’ve learned in recent times. In other words, transition from a floundering find-your-footing thirty-year-old to a mature expert forty-something (My older sister would probably translate that as “Grow up!“) OK, a little deep, perhaps, but isn’t that something we all hanker for once-in-a-while? Maybe that’s been my problem: I’ve been dealing with surface stuff for so long now that I’ve not taken care of the inner, deep things. Whatever your stance on that, I choose to acknowledge that we all have deep, personal issues to learn about, and I’m not going to brush them under the carpet or hide from them anymore (like the British are particularly renowned for!)

However, getting back to the real Me was only the first commonality mentioned in those emails. The second was this: a Major Project.

Yeah, yeah, yeah…

Before you sigh, roll your eyes up and shake your head at yet another SPB attempt at something, we’re not talking about the trite little videos I’ve been publishing over the past few years. No, we’re talking something different – something more in line with “me” – a project that will blow me (and hopefully you) away. This project will be something I can focus my energies on and produce a result that is actually outstandingly SPB-like, not a mediocre copy of what has (or appeared to have) worked for others.

People matter: I love chatting to audiences after a concert.

People matter.

It is clear my music career needs attention. No more fluff. No more scrounging around looking for something to do. Being a conductor is TOUGH because whatever you want to do, you need a bunch of people to do it with. Conducting 1 or 4 people is just dumb, yet finding players to form an orchestra is either nigh impossible outside the higher education environment or it costs a small fortune (believe me: my wife and parents know!) (It can be done, though – remember George Marriner Maull and his creation of the remarkable Discovery Orchestra in my last post?) And composing usually requires an ensemble who will play your music. Good luck with that! Well, I have been blessed: I am VERY fortunate to have many colleagues in the music world who have more confidence in me than I do myself, and they’ve taken on my music and performed it – most recently Jane Rondin of the Zephyrs Wind Quintet in New Jersey, and Alexandra Vago of the Blue Pointe String Quartet in Cleveland, Ohio.

You also matter. Thank you for taking this journey with me.

So I need a project. A big project. Something that will blow me away. Something I can do without relying on other people, and something that does not require me to put my hand out and ask for money. I need a music-related project in which I can find fulfillment.

Funnily enough, the disappointment that sparked this recent series of posts may provide just the right catalyst for that project.

Give me a few more days to figure out some nuances, and I’ll tell you what the disappointment was, and what it and you have spurred me to do.

Shall we say, Friday next week? It’s a date – look out for my next email then.

Your turn:

To help us all focus on what we do well in life, what is your hobby or Major Project right now? And how did you get into it? Write a comment below, and then share this post with your circles of influence – they will want to read what you write!

Memory lane: Was it good, bad or empty?

Each month I keep an eye on the conversations I’m having with people to find topics for my next #OrchChat – an hour of discussion on Twitter about orchestras. Usually the three topics of each chat are quite diverse but so far have somehow bled into each other. It’s really a fascinating hour.

Click here to read the transcript of January’s #OrchChat

Over the past couple of weeks there is one conversation that has cropped up several times from several sources, including the excellent & brief daily snippet of arts news You’ve Cott Mail, and I was just wondering about your experience in the arts. This topic just might be included in February’s #OrchChat (on the 12th at 6pm ET).

Were you in a youth orchestra, choir or musical?

Were you in a youth orchestra, choir or musical?

For example, when you were in school or even college, did you ever sing or play a musical instrument? Were you in a play or musical? Did you ever attend a school concert or show that a friend or sibling was in? What about in the community?

My point of barraging you with these questions is to find out what, if any, experience you had with music and the performing arts, especially whether or not you enjoyed it.

Are there any specific memories of good feelings or events that come to mind?

Have a think about it.

Then send me an email with your observations and experiences. If you feel like sharing, go global so all the world can learn: add a post to my Facebook page.

 

#OrchChat – January 2013

Twitter was the home of another FABULOUS discussion amongst some passionate orchestra enthusiasts last night!

#OrchChat was scheduled for one hour and although it got off to a slow start, people from around the world joined in and the discussions got meaty. I’m thrilled so many people participated and some have already made terrific suggestions for next month’s session.

The three topics we explored, with very interesting perspectives from performers and audiences, were:

  1. Public Self-Condemnation: does the language orchestras use turn people off?
  2. Dull vs. Sparkling: ballet, opera, film, video games all have visual elements. Are orchestra concerts boring?
  3. Why should orchestras use Twitter?

What are your thoughts about these topics, and what topics would you like to discuss? Add your comments below this post.

Some stats:

Click this link to read the transcript:

 orchchat_tweets_2013_01_08

THANK YOU to the following participants who I hope will join you and me next time on Tuesday, February 12 at 6pm Eastern Time:

19_eighty_2
afrikajay
AudienceDevSpec
AzuriteEnigma
CStarek
gilypoz7
MaestrosLover
MarkTannerPiano
mlaffs
njd2245
pianobug
Pishlipops
RGinDC
RichardBratby
Stephen_P_Brown
TylerBarton27

Composing D: Development

In Sonta Form there are usually two themes (see last week’s post for the Main Theme of our new piece). This past week that theme and the complimentary Secondary Theme were added to the score, twice each, and spread amongst all the instruments. When these two themes are presented for the first time in their entirety, it is usually in a section called the “Exposition” and this is what it sounds like in our “Sonata for Chamber Orchestra”:

[ca_audio url=”https://www.stephenpbrown.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/Sonata-for-Chamber-Orch-Expo.mp3″ width=”500″ height=”27″ css_class=”codeart-google-mp3-player”]

 

Now it’s time to move on to the “Development” section. This is usually the longest section of a piece in Sonata Form as the composer can take snippets of both themes and twist, turn and combine them. They could also be played backwards, upside-down and of course, backwards AND upside-down! These compositional techniques serve to add variety, interest and keep the attentive listener guessing or trying to figure out what’s happening to the music.

Tweetable!
Add variety to your work – can you do something in reverse, upside-down, or another zany way? via @Stephen_P_Brown

 

As an example, let’s take these four notes:

 

Now let’s place those notes in reverse, like a mirror image. You don’t have to be able to read music to see the “Retrograde” pattern: 

 

Ok, now it gets a little tricker. Notice the way the original notes move up (higher) first, and then jump down at the end. Then look at the second bar and see the opposite – the notes move down (lower) first, and then jump up at the end. The melody has been “Inverted“:

 

Finally, let’s try and combine these two elements together. In this example, we first inverted the melody and then took its mirror image. See how the first note of the original (E, in between the top two lines) is also the last note in the Inversion Retrograde variation:

 

There was a time when audiences didn’t have the kind of soundbite distractions we do today, and many could actually HEAR these variations as the music was being played. What a skill! Nowadays we’d consider someone who could do that a genius, in the same way anyone under 18 would call someone who can legibly write cursive/ joined-up text must be a genuis (since public schools in the USA stopped teaching it).

For our new piece “Sonata for Chamber Orchestra” here are some of the snippets from the main themes that appear throughout the Development section:

 

 

 

 

And you’ll just have to wait to hear the complete Development section, I’m afraid!

Tell me below one thing you found fascinating about today’s post. Next week we should have the introduction and Coda (ending) completed, which means the entire composition will be ready! This is your last chance to have an influence on our new piece of music!

Composing C: The Main Event

Well, it’s not an event as such, but it makes for a great blog title, right?!

Today we develop the Main Theme of our piece. In music, a theme is usually a melody but it could refer to an accompaniment or even just a rhythm, but we’ll stick to something conventional this time.

How is a melody created?

My first task is to decide how often to have different chords played. Most of my tonal pieces have one chord per bar (or measure). In our piece, that would mean we play a G Major chord for four beats (a G Major chord is made up of the 1st, 3rd and 5th notes of the G Major scale – refer to last week’s post for info about that, or check out Wikipedia for a communal explanation about chords).

In the second bar, we’d play a different chord, but one that is closely related to the previous one. Perhaps D Major. Maybe then back to G Major, followed by C Major, and for the next four bars, G, C, D and finish on G again.

This is what it would sound like:

[ca_audio url=”https://www.stephenpbrown.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/untitled-2.mp3″ width=”500″ height=”27″ css_class=”codeart-google-mp3-player”]

 

However, there are other options, and I’ve opted for a pretty challenging one: to make the melody an eight-bar phrase but keep the same chord throughout. It’s possible! A lot of classical era composers managed it, so I’m going to attempt it. Why is it a challenge? It’s going to be tough to make it interesting and likable over such a long period of time.

Tweetable!
One type of challenge is to make something interesting and likable over a long period of time. via @Stephen_P_Brown

First, just for reference, the primary (root) note of each chord is placed in every bar in the bass part. I can build the composition from there. In some complicated pieces I’ll add a piano part with all the notes of the chord in it but delete the piano part before I finish.

Now I’m taking the chord of G Major and making up a rhythm as I plug in notes from the scale of G Major into the violin part. It’s that [easy]. Here’s our main theme:

Score of Main Theme

Chord sequence (in bass part) and main theme (in violin part)

 

Click here to listen to it:

[ca_audio url=”https://www.stephenpbrown.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/Untitled-120923.mp3″ width=”500″ height=”27″ css_class=”codeart-google-mp3-player”]

 

Notice how the first two bars repeat in bars 5 & 6 – that creates familiarity and gives the listener something to hold onto. The melody also ends on G, the root of the home key. Next we will add the second theme and expand the exposition, adding things like ‘bridges’ and ‘interludes.’ Exciting stuff! Really !!!

Composing B: And so it begins…

Following last week’s post about how to start a composition, well… how I am starting this composition… a few decisions have been made.

Whilst looking around for a compositional structure I came across several main elements:

Each have their own special qualities and after a little thought, I thought it would be nice to try Sonata form. I don’t remember the last time I wrote something in Sonata form (and stuck to it) so here’s an opportunity.

At the moment, Sonata form will form the dominating format, although during the creative process unexpected twists and turns can often lead compositions into completely unplanned territory.

Tweetable!
The creative process can take unexpected twists and turns that lead into completely unknown territory. via @Stephen_P_Brown

Sonata form structure:

  • Introduction
  • Exposition: A main theme (usually a melody) followed by a second theme in a different key*
  • Development: Both themes mixed together through wildly changing audio experiences, although still always related to the exposition somehow
  • Recapitulation: The main theme revisted plus the secondary theme in the ‘home key’
  • Coda: An ending unlike any other. Or, probably like every other.

Beethoven had a really hard time ending his music, so pieces like his famous Fifth Symphony could actually end many, many times but none of them actually do end the piece. Until there are no more chords left.

Dudley Moore had a similar problem:

Dudley Moore doesn’t stop…

So, quite imaginatively, let’s call our piece after its structure, “Sonata.” But who is it for? Well, it’s for a chamber orchestra of sorts. Not piano, nor violin or any other solo instrument. So we can expand the title of our new piece of music to: Sonata for Chamber Orchestra. Like it? I do. Don’t like it? Are there any other options? Yes. Lots. Think of a title and put it in the comments below.

(*)
I also chose to go with the key signature of G Major. The KEY of a piece of music tells the players what tonality to focus on. In the Western world we have developed a system using 12 different tones that repeat (on a piano, play every consecutive note starting with the left of the three black keys, F sharp(#). You’ll end up hearing ‘another’ F# 13 keys later). From those 12 notes, 8 of them form the basis of tonality – major (happy) scales and minor (sad) scales.

Again on a piano, find ‘C’. It’s the white key immediately to the left of the two black keys. Play that C plus only the 6 white notes to the right, and then finish with the 8th key which is actually another C. Repeat. And repeat. Start with any C and play the scale – they all sound the same only higher or lower. The combination of tones forms the scale, in this case a major scale.

Copy that combination of tones but start on G (G is 5 notes up from C, including C. It’s the white key immediately to the RIGHT of the LEFT-MOST of the THREE black keys. Got it?!). Only this time, instead of playing all the white keys, when you get to the 7th key, don’t play it. Instead, play the black key immediately to the right – that’s right, F#.

This major scale is what will form the tonal foundation of our new piece.

G Major scale on a keyboard

G Major scale

 

Next week, lets look at the melody, or the ‘Main Theme’