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.

 

When to say no

Last night I performed at an awards ceremony. It was a great show directed by a great showman Peter Stark (the former American ballet dancer, not the English conductor).

One of the musical highlights for me was conducting a special arrangement of “Kashmir” made famous by Led Zeppelin, and more recently by the electric string quartet “Escala“. Our arrangement was for full orchestra, rock band, vocal soloist and two choirs – love it.

 

 

But also on the programme was a peppy little number I wrote myself – the last movement of my Marimba Concerto 1. I led a performance of the whole piece earlier this week with Glenda Lopez as the soloist, so back when it was suggested we use a shortened version for the awards ceremony, I was thrilled to have it played twice in the same week!

As time went by my paranoia for the little details (or maybe it’s OCD… who knows?) got the better of me and I inquired as to whether or not anyone had checked with Glenda to see if she was also available to perform the second concert. Good job, too – she wasn’t.

A frantic search began to find a marimba soloist. At one point it was suggested “Stephen – you’re a percussionist! Why don’t you play it?!” To me, that’s kind of like asking the cookware frontman George Foreman to box again. Or Nadia Comaneci to balance on the beams again – I’m not convinced she’d achieve another perfect “10” at any modern Olympics.

So the search continued.

But it was proving difficult to find someone – even the local music schools and universities had finished and the majority of marimba students were heading home or off to summer camps before the awards ceremony. So yes, you know where this story is going…

I gave in and said “OK. I’ll do it.”

Unfortunately, during last night’s performance I made some mistakes whilst playing my own composition (not being able to warm-up and driving for several hours not long before probably didn’t help, either). The vast majority of the audience probably didn’t notice: they even cheered during the applause. And almost no-one in that audience had heard the piece before so they were probably not able to determine what was a mistake and what wasn’t. Perhaps the novelty factor of the marimba overshadowed the musical dodginess of the performance?

But the musicians in the audience & orchestra, my peers and several local community experts… Maybe they were being nice in complimenting me afterwards, but it’s not a contemporary piece: it’s a fun, peppy, tonal, predictable little melody, so I’m sure those “in the know” noticed. I’m just pleased I’ve learned how to ‘perform’ well and not let little errors get in the way of the audience’ enjoyment.

(Here’s a computer rendition of what the shortened last movement should sound like)

[ca_audio url=”https://www.stephenpbrown.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/Marimba-Concerto-1_mvt3short.mp3″ width=”300″ height=”30″ css_class=”codeart-google-mp3-player” autoplay=”false”]

 

I felt and still feel awful that a has-been percussionist couldn’t give an outstanding performance, whether or not anyone agrees.

Conclusion?

I should have said “no.”

I should not have agreed to play the piece, and worked harder to help find a suitable soloist. Or even changed the repertoire. With either of these two solutions the audience would have been treated to an amazing performance and I would have shined doing what I do best – encouraging other musicians to give THEIR best (i.e. Conducting).

Am I alone?

Do you sometimes make judgments to help out whilst knowing deep inside it’s not the best solution?

Has there been a time you SHOULD have said “no” to doing something?

Please do share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below, where the best action and learning always happens, and then share this post using the buttons below: the more people we have commenting the more we can learn from each other.