Back to Choral Roots

A couple of months ago I was appointed Conductor of the 40+ year old Clearwater Chorus. It’s an ensemble of people who like to sing, and encourages adults of varying ages and abilities to make and share music together.

At least, that’s what it is now.

The Clearwater Chorus

Although not titled a “Director” that is effectively my role and as a result, I’ve grabbed hold of the reins and am guiding the ensemble through a new perspective: who we have and what we do now is what we are, and as long as we work together to share music, we’ll be doing something of value to the world.

[Click here: I’m giving away four tickets to our concert on Dec 22!]

Why is this so new? Because like so many institutions that are founded and/or led by an individual for so long (in this case, Arthur Goetze who directed the group from 1975-2005), its members can become entrenched in “the way things were.” This is also a very typical perspective of older generations, especially those who have worked their whole lives and are now enjoying a few special comforts in retirement: they expect things to stay the way they know them. But that is so rarely beneficial for anyone, and certainly not how the world spins.

So whilst respecting the past and honoring those who have gained far more experience with this ensemble than I ever hope to, it is now time to focus not on what we don’t have but on what we do…

Doesn’t this pertain to life in general?

For example, over the past 12 years I have mourned the loss of an active performing and teaching career founded in music, something I have known to be a primary part of my existence since I was in single digits. My music career after moving to the USA has been patchy, fraught with unconfidence, some expensive decisions, and a distinct lack of industry contacts that don’t label me an outsider.

But this current appointment has, unexpectedly, brought me right back to square one – the roots from which my fascination with music grew.

British American Conductor Composer Stephen P Brown began his musical life as a choir boy in Cuxton Church

The Anglo Saxon village church in Cuxton UK, where I was a choir boy

I was 7 years old when I began playing the piano, but that was after I began singing in my English village church choir. I remember joining the village Junior School choir around the same time, as well, but by the time I had moved to my UK secondary school at age 11, I was fully immersed in singing, piano and clarinet. It wasn’t until just before I moved to the USA the first time that I showed any interest in percussion (and if you know me, it was an incredible 4 years of percussion playing that got me into college at 17 years old! More on that another time, perhaps).

During my college years a budding-conductor buddy of mine, Chris Kiver now a Choral Professor at Penn State University, and I would organize “Scratch” singing sessions in which anyone who wanted to play and sing the repertoire we had planned could do so. Of course we did much recruiting, but giving solo parts to multiple singers throughout each piece enabled them to get much needed experience, and Chris and I to learn many differing needs of accompaniment.

In the years that followed college I conducted various ensembles such as the Ealing Choral Society (thanks to the late great James Gaddarn), the Yalding Choral Society, the Medway Community College Singers, and a whole host of other one-off groups. Four highlights in particular were:

  • Conducting Handel’s complete Messiah with 5 days’ notice when the conductor who was booked fell ill,
  • Conducting a “Marathon Singing Session” in which almost 1,000 teenagers sang hymns, easy listening songs and some chart songs,
  • Conducting the European Premiere of Dawn Mantras (outside, at sunrise) by Australian composer Ross Edwards during the UK’s year-long Millennium Festival in 2000, and
  • Singing for John Rutter at Carnegie Hall in his own composition Magnificat.
British American Conductor Composer sang at Carnegie Hall for John Rutter

Melissa and I hanging out with John Rutter in NYC

In addition, I played timpani or percussion for countless choral societies around the UK in more pieces of music than I can remember – hundreds. And, being a percussionist usually with lots of time not actually playing, I got to listen to conductors rehearse their choirs, listen to the choir members mutter under their breath, and have choir members (usually altos) unsolicitally (?!) share their awe about how anyone could actually play the timpani: “I never knew they had pedals like that!”

Interestingly, only a handful of these choral activities “made the cut” onto my resume, so when most folk read my history of musical performance, they see “instrumental conductor” or even just “music teacher.” It’s quite annoying, really, because although conductors in the UK and Europe are trained to be teachers (hence the general reference to them as “Maestro“) in all genres of “formal” music – orchestral, choral, opera, musicals, some concert/wind band and maybe even ballet – in the USA conductors are labelled at a young age and ‘specialize’ not in leadership or motivation, but as a topical expert in just one of those genres. It’s such a pity.

Of course there are exceptions such as James Levine. Kind of. And the incomparable Leonard Bernstein. But generally, conductors in the USA are rarely recognized as even “capable” of conducting well in more than one musical genre. You can tell when a choral conductor has an orchestra in front of them, and you can tell when an orchestral conductor now has to deal with a choir, too. I’m quite proud of the fact that I was taught and expected to work with both, so now that I’m working with the Clearwater Chorus (this links to our Facebook page – please Like it!), not only do I feel comfortable and confident that I can help produce a good sound, help the singers sing together, and focus on sharing good stories and music with others (including the audience), but it is also bringing me back to my roots in music – as that little angelic Church of England choir boy in my village.

For your entertainment: This is one of my favourite Bernstein performances of showmanship, especially around the 5 minute mark. It’s even more engaging because of the video/ audio mis-synching!

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.

 

Next piece: Wind Quintet 2

Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet

Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet

 

Yes, I’m forging ahead!

Why? Because I know that as I improve my composition skills (the purpose of this entire project) I am learning how instruments sound and work together and I will be wanting to compose for larger combinations of instruments, such as a full orchestra. Writing such a piece will take a lot more time. If I can get ahead in the project now, it will allow some flexibility for taking longer on the bigger pieces.

For example, this next piece is a Wind Quintet. That’s the standard combination of woodwind instruments (plus French Horn) found in most Western ensembles – flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon. However, in this piece the five performers are required to play a total of 11 instruments.

Huh?

There is something in the music world known as ‘doubling’. This is when a performer can play more than one instrument, usually related to their main instrument. For example, a flute player may also play the piccolo, or the alto flute. A bassoon player may also play the deep, funky contrabassoon.

So, in my composition “Wind Quintet 2” each of the woodwind performers are asked to play their most common ‘doubling’ instruments at some point. Only the French Horn is the stabilizing timbre (or, tonal quality).

Now, about the music…

 

Click here to get your copy of the score and parts

It is based on Psalm 91, one of six categorized as a Confession of Trust according to Matt Baker (accessed April 13, 2013).

Again, I’ve structured the music around the structure of the psalm, which provided an engaging framework to work with:

According to the Longman and Garland expository commentary, the structure is as follows:

  • A – Invitation to the Protection of God
  • B – Forms of protection (there are 5)
  • A’ – Another invitation to the Protection of God
  • B’ – More forms of protection (there are 3)
  • C – The oracle of Salvation

Do you know what that means to me? Theme and Variations! Like this:

  • Theme
  • Variation 1
  • Variation 2
  • Variation 3
  • Variation 4
  • Variation 5
  • Theme
  • Variation 6
  • Variation 7
  • Variation 8
  • Embellished Theme

Excellent!

Oh, one more musical point:

Part of verse 2 of the psalm reads:

My refuge and my fortress: my God; in whom I trust

The last verse of the Oracle, or Edict, is this text, which I have altered ever so slightly:

With long life I will satisfy

I’ll show him my salvation.

So the musical theme (or, melody) is actually based on these words combined –  you could almost use them to sing along with the theme!

I’m sure there’s an official Compositional Device or term for doing that, but at this point that doesn’t matter. What matters is the fact that such a technique exists, works, and it is in this piece.

 

Composing A: Foundation

Sometimes it starts with a title. Sometimes a melody. It could be based on a chord progression. But at the heart of any piece of music I write, there is structure.

This is an exploration of the way I compose. You may think it intriguing, fascinating, incorrect, backwards, exemplary, but none of that matters to be honest. Authors write novels in different ways, and composers are no different. I can’t even say this is my ‘method’. What I can say, is that in this highly productive era of musical output in my life, this is how I’m composing right now. Let’s explore the organic growth of a new piece of music, as it’s being written.

It’s a risk! There are extremely productive weeks, and weeks where other things in life get priority. So, either I’m taking a risk and hoping I’ll have enough material to share with you, or I’m setting myself an unconscious goal of having made sufficient progress on the piece that there’s something worth writing about.

Tweetable:
Project blogging risk: has sufficient progress been made to have something worth blogging about? via @Stephen_P_Brown

Today, we launch the new. A brand new piece of music. Let’s take this creative journey together:

This time, I’m actually starting with the instrumentation. It’s very easy in this case because it is already defined. I am writing for the Patel Conservatory Composer’s Orchestra – one of the ensembles in the Patel Conservatory Youth Orchestra program. Why does that make it easy? I already know two things:

  1. What instruments to include in the composition, and
  2. The skill level of each of the players.

When left to my own devices (i.e. not having any specific players in mind), my mind often wanders into the realm of “is it even possible to play like this?” as I’m composing. Not good! So, knowing who the performers are and what they are capable of playing is a huge benefit.

Our new piece is being written for the following instruments:

  • Flutes (2)
  • Oboe
  • Clarinet
  • Bassoon
  • French Horn
  • Bass Trombone
  • Violins (3)
  • Viola
  • Cello
  • Bass (Double Bass/ Contrabass)

That’s it! That’s my first step. In my incredibly useful composing software, Sibelius, I’m going to create a score for just these instruments.

Oh! Here it is! (Click on it to see a larger version)

Score of Conductor Composer Stephen P Brown's new piece

The creation of this music begins with a blank score!

 

What you may notice is some generic stuff I haven’t decided upon yet – like, the title. The time signature is also 4/4, which means four crotchet (quarter note) beats grouped together in each bar, but I might change my mind about that. There’s also no tempo (speed) marking in the top left corner, and no key signature which determines which common group of notes to include (for example – the piano’s white note “B” or the black note next to it “Bb”)

That’ll come next week…