#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/

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:

How I compose: Step 1

dna structure musical composition stephen p brown spb

The structure of DNA forms the foundation of physical life. Music also needs a structural foundation.

I am now working on the 6th piece in my composition quest. This is not the first time I’ve composed music but in the past I have approached pieces from a variety of angles: systematically using someone else’s process, systematically using someone else’s process that I adapted slightly, systematically using a process I developed myself (which begs the real question: is there anything brand new, or is everything an adaptation of what we’ve already experienced?) and there were even pieces that I approached system- and process-free; meaning, I just sat and wrote something.

However, in order to accomplish my current task it makes sense to stick with a systematic approach, and each of the 6 pieces that exist in this project so far have been put together starting with its “source structure.”

Step 1: Structure.

You may be aware by now that for a variety of reasons I chose the poems in the Book of Psalms as my inspiration to compose music that will improve my skills. (“Psalm” in English means “Song” so think of the Book of Psalms as an anthology of song lyrics! However, when translating into English most Bibles rightfully focus on the content and meaning of the text and ignore the temptation to maintain any of the original Hebraic meter or rhyme.)

So, I look at my listed of psalms sorted by type and calculated for even distribution, and read the next psalm on the list. For piece #6 it is psalm #144. After a couple of readings I usually sort of get what its about, but to make sure I also read an old narrative text by R.E.O. White (A Christian Handbook to the Psalms) that summarizes the poem and puts it into context alongside other psalms and stories in the Bible.

Next, I carefully look at the overview and detailed analysis as prepared by Longman and Garland in their edition of  the revised (2008) “Expositor’s Bible Commentary” Volume 5, a massive and heavy volume that contains detailed topical, language, structural and historical contexts of every psalm – all 150.

So far I have used the Longman and Garland structural analysis as the foundation for the structure of my compositions. For piece #6 psalm #144 the structure has three main parts with poetic meter and rhyme (in the original Hebrew language) divided up as follows:

  • Section A (Hymn of Praise)
  • Section B (Human Need)
  • Section C (Prayer for God’s involvement)
  • Section A’ (Hymn of Praise)
  • Section B’ (Prayer for God’s involvement)
  • Section C’ (Prayer for Blessing on God’s people.)

Well, I like to keep things consistent only to make my life easier, so based on the section titles above I’m restructuring the structure to: A B C A C D. This will tell me to use the same theme/ melody/ style/ for both sections called “A – Hymn of Praise” and “C – Prayer for God’s Involvement.” Sometimes this is sufficient but these section titles don’t really tell me what the psalm is saying, so I keep a note of what the author is expressing, such as:

  • A – Bold praise
  • B – Fleetingness of life
  • C – Lead the battle
  • A – Promise of wild abandon praise (a new song will be composed!)
  • C – Re-request for deliverance
  • D – The peace and results of winning

And now I have the structure of my musical inspiration.

Next week: either composition #5 will be published (the piece that started out as a traditional choral work but didn’t end up that way) or I’ll share step 2 of how I compose… which would you prefer?

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.

 

Next Piece: A Brass Mirror

According to the countdown clock on this page there are now LESS than seven years for me to complete the whole project (click here to find out what the project is all about). All is well, though – I seem to be on track. Already I’ve completed two compositions in this massively huge project, and here’s the latest one:

 

This piece is based on Psalm 143, which is one of the many Lament psalms (58 in all). It has a clear structure, thanks to Longman & Garland’s commentary, and that made constructing the piece very simple. It starts with an introduction, then to a conversational Prayer requesting righteous thinking and behavior (let’s call that Section A), followed by an actual hymn-like Lament (B) – a time when the author recognized his own mistakes and sinfulness. Then the psalmist petitions for help (a variation of Section B) and finally returns to another prayer for righteousness (a slight variation of Section A again). I then closed the piece with a shortened reprise of the introduction.

Conductor Composer Maestro Stephen P Brown composes a piece for brass trio based on psalm 143 with an ABBA structureSeveral times I toyed with the idea of writing in the style of a disco beat, purely based on the structure above (A, B, B, A) but decided against it 😉 Instead, the piece is traditionally harmonic with a few Russian romantic twists and turns, but nothing harmful and not quite Stravinskian or minimalist.

What I do find interesting is the instrumentation. I wanted to tackle the brass section of the orchestra as it’s something I’ve not done since college. My friend James Stretton shared some thoughts and advice, and I wrote the piece for brass trio: horn, trombone and tuba. I think it’s a wonderful combination and with the right players, instruments and tonal quality, will sound mellow yet weighty. Love it. Thanks, Jim!

I dedicated the piece to him, but also wanted to acknowledge those folk in my life who helped me understand the horn, trombone and tuba (whether they know it or not), so I listed their names in the score, too. Thank you, folks. Perhaps you had a bigger impact on me than I’ve let on to date.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy this piece. If you’d like a copy of the score and parts, you can get it for free for one week only at the link below. Be sure to share this post around, especially if you have any brass players following/friending you!

https://www.stephenpbrown.com/compositions/a-brass-mirror/