Who cares about live music?

"Tell Someone Who Cares"Time for a rant/ rave/ vent, methinks. It’s been a while. Bear with me:

Who cares about live music?

Everywhere I look there are stories of musicians being yelled off their stage, performers crying for “decent” pay, orchestras and opera houses closing down, music schools diminishing beyond recognition, and a host of other music-related news that simply doesn’t play a pretty tune.

So, who actually still cares about music?

  • Musicians do (instrumentalists, singers, composers, conductors).
  • Politicians will if it makes them popular.
  • Some film producers and directors do.
  • Music writers and administrators do.
  • Music teachers and professors do.
  • Some corporate executives hoping to make their company look good by supporting local musical establishments might.

Who else?

  • And don’t tell me dancers do – if they did we’d still have live musicians at every performance.
  • And don’t tell me most audiences do – if they did they’d willingly pay the costs of every concert.
  • And don’t tell me clergy do – if they did they wouldn’t be promoting celebrities who sing to pre-recorded tracks.

But despite the seemingly exhaustive list of supporters, first: look how many people who experienced music directly in their lives are those who remain passionate about it, and second: I can’t help but feel an underlying podium of obligation and hidden-agenda persuasion.

The fact is, in 2013 there are very few people who care about one of humankind’s most fundamental forms of expression. “Music” has been around for as long as birds could whistle and people could control the pitch of their voices. For centuries it was just a part of everyday life for just about everyone.

16th Century Gregorian Chant Song Book

This 16thC songbook in Seville Cathedral contains many chants “composed” over hundreds of years

Then, about 500+ years ago, someone figured out a way to write it down so others could repeat what was being expressed. (Actually, music was used in the church to aid priests with their memorization of liturgical text – a trick that is still used today.) I’ve seen one of the earliest songbooks known to exist, currently housed in Seville cathedral, and when people stop to consider what it represents, it is an awesome thing. But, like so many museum pieces, most people just wander by and say ¡Qué Bueno! (“That’s nice.”) You can hear the apathy in their tone.

Since then, there’s been a direct split between formal music and popular music. Even these words seem insufficient to describe the horrors of classifying and labeling just about each individual’s specific tastes, desires, likes and academic output of organized sound-based expression.

But what really scares me are these two facts:

1. Older generations are telling younger generations that music is unworthy, not to be valued, and an interrupting annoyance. Instead, we are taught by decision-makers and influencers that it is a gimmick, a sometimes useful but very expensive tool of persuasion, and wholly unessential or unnecessary for anyone’s well-being. Example: “Our youth groups don’t want to see an orchestra on stage – that’s not our vision for them.” Example: “Oh! That youth orchestra is just way too loud whilst we’re shopping. C’mon, let’s leave.” Example: This whole flashmob was commercially staged, including the little girl at the beginning – the bank the performers were in front of was celebrating its 130th birthday.

2. Musicians are out to prove their relevance/ worth/ value, demand certain rights, and are using Music as a political means to get what they want (be that income, satisfaction, their own worth/ value, proof that they matter or haven’t wasted their lives pursuing something pointless, etc.).

Ouch.

And I’m fed up with it.

In today’s technological digitized world, is there even a future for music? At all? We have created machines that compose and conduct, and devices that source every piece of music that has ever been recorded or constructed as an audio file. [And that’s a whole other rant – are we listening to the performers, or the sound system? More on that another time.] Music provides some sort of background sensory stimulation in almost every activity many Western humans undertake, including shopping, using public toilets, driving, office work, jogging, and so on.

The recent spike in popularity of orchestras playing music whilst a film is displayed above them is an extension of the old piano-playing cinemas of… wait for it… not even a hundred years ago. In Beethoven’s time it was rare for concert halls to have seats. People mingled, chatted, ate & drank, and had a good old time hanging out. In Mozart’s time, operas told stories of faraway places and unknown cultures with drama and costumes and scenery and, of course, dramatic music.

Mention opera nowadays and most people yawn.

What’s happened? What’s going on? Where are humans headed next? Hardly the dearly desired World Peace, that’s for sure! And I fear the loss of music and the senses that rely on it for their useful/ proper/ full development, will transform humans into unthinking creatures of survival habit.

And yet we’ve come so far…

What do you think? Add a comment below and let’s talk about it…

Maybe it’s just in specific cultures. Maybe this is all totally imagined. Regardless, I’m upset so many humans around us are dismissing live music making, and I’m getting angry enough to do something about it in my little circle of influence. More about that soon!

 

#PsalmQuest Bass Clarinet Joint Commission!

Well, this turned into an amazing project!

A local performer reached out to me and said “We should work together!” He was very generous in sharing what a good reputation I have amongst some of his colleagues, so with my esteem duly stroked I said, “Sure!”

Bass Clarinets rule!

clarinette familleTurns out Calvin Falwell is a Bass Clarinet geek. Geeks are cool these days, so that is a compliment. It is also a compliment because I used to play bass clarinet myself when I was 12. You can hear a little about that story on the video below. You can imagine how excited I was when Calvin suggested I write a concerto for bass clarinet and strings.

YES!

Well, some international celebrity solo musicians have the label backing and royalty income to pay for commissions out of their own pockets, whereas the vast majority of enthusiasts and professionals like Calvin don’t. He is a remarkably busy orchestral and opera clarinetist with a hefty teaching schedule at the University of South Florida as well, so I’m thrilled to be working with him.

But how can we make this work? Well, speaking of thrills, I’m trusting that whatever I compose will be thrilling for you, too. Perhaps there’s a way we can partner up and not only produce a piece of music that ROCKS (Calvin’s term), but that we can perform and record – possibly even put on film.

Many small parts = one HUGE outcome

(Click it to tweet it)

As I state in the video below, many small contributions can make a much bigger impact than one or two large grants. So instead of finding someone who might generously donate $1,200 for this piece, why don’t we pool a tiny portion of our own resources together and make it happen much sooner!

Think about that – the more people you share the video below with, then that many more people can participate in jointly commissioning this new concerto! We all win!

  • A fabulous new piece of music gets composed
  • It then gets performed, possibly as part of the Festival of Psalms in May
  • We can get it professionally recorded (and I’ll even send you a CD if you put up $100) so you don’t have to put up with a computer generated MIDI audio file

AND,

  • If you share the video below with enough folk, we can get it filmed and put on Youtube, too – with your name as one of the commissioners or contributors!

Past success:

The last time I wrote a piece of music and invited you to participate, we pooled together more than 650% of the intended budget! 6.5 times the amount I was expecting. This goal is somewhat higher but I think we can still achieve it (especially if you know any clarinet players!) Share the project several times over the next month, and we could even exceed our goal 🙂 Wouldn’t THAT be terrific!

Here –

Watch the video and see what it’s about, what you get, and how you can help others participate:

You can help Conductor Composer Stephen P Brown write a Concerto for Bass Clarinet and Strings

Quest #9 – Perspective

British American Conductor Composer Stephen P Brown writes a composition for bass clarinet and drum kitThis was an odd composition that kind of came out of nowhere, but ended up being the ninth composition in my psalm composition quest.

And it’s a little strange, being written for bass clarinet and drum kit.

Uh-huh.

I met Calvin Falwell recently and during our chat he mentioned a project he and his USF Faculty colleague Robert McCormick were undertaking. I know Robert and was therefore interested.

Vox Novus commission lots of new music from composers for a project called “Fifteen Minutes of Fame.” Composers submit brand new compositions no longer than one minute (60 seconds) and 15 of them are selected and joined together to form one piece of music.

Crazy?! But awesome 🙂

So, after witnessing Calvin’s playing in Joseph Hallman’s Bass Clarinet Concerto last weekend at the University of South Florida, I came home and researched the Vox Novus project. Many hours later, the 1-minute piece is finished and submitted!

Here’s the program note that went with it (maximum 50 words):

“Perspective” was written for Calvin Falwell and Robert McCormick, who play the composer’s own primary instruments: clarinet and percussion. Musical influences come from a variety of sources, including Psalm 14 which is in four sections: Foolishness, God’s perspective, Prophetic perspective, and hope. A Vox Novus commission, it is 59 seconds.

As the closing date isn’t until mid-March and each piece submitted must be original and never performed before, I offer you a computer-generated recording (it’s missing several sound effects in the score), but no sheet music, yet.

Here’s the piece:

Interestingly, this sudden spurt of energy and creativity actually left me with sparse inspiration and incentive during the next day’s scheduled composition session! Beware spurts of creativity! They may drain you for tomorrow… [Click it to tweet it] No matter, onward.

Now it’s your turn:

In the comments below, let me know

  1. Why you like or dislike this composition.
  2. What you think I could have done better.
  3. Which of the other requests should I consider? Click here to see the list.

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.

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.

 

New piano solo – Covered

Here is my psalm composition quest’s third piece of music:

Click here to get your copy of the score
For those of you “Psalmsters” following along with this project, you’ll know that this piece of music is based on Psalm 32. This psalm explains how sin is not eliminated, but covered from God’s view. Hence the title of the piece “Covered.”

The number 3 plays an important part throughout the psalm, and therefore my piece has lots of three’s in it as well. The introduction, for example, consists of 3 notes.

Constructing this piece was most interesting. There are clear elements in the psalm that include instruction, experience and even some words of wisdom from God. It’s funny that the structure of this psalm is more of a mirror than my last piece A Brass Mirror, but we won’t worry about that (Ah, the quirks of ‘artistic license!’)

British American Conductor Composer Stephen P Brown solo piano Covered

After the “early morning” introduction, Section A is about forgiveness. It is followed by a lesson from the author’s experience (B) and an explanation of a promise (C). The middle section is God sharing his promise of wisdom (D), and then we get another lesson (B) and explanation (C) before the author shares his happiness and excitement at being forgiven (A).

For some reason the audio elements of this piece are like an upturned pyramid: What should be the highest point of the structure (the middle) is actually the lowest. I just can’t imagine God speaking with a high-pitched voice, so it appears in Covered with a low but clear rumbling.

My wife likes this piece even more than the famous Not Rach 3 which had its premiere in early 2011, just before my move to Florida. That’s saying something. And I’m very pleased to dedicate this composition to some very engaged and loyal fans. (Thanks for participating in my little reward campaign – your goodies are on their way!)

What about the next piece? It’s a Wind Quintet with 11 instruments.

Yeah – we’ll figure that one out next week 🙂

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

 

Do you ‘wing it’?

Setting up a plan of action really does seem to work, wouldn’t you agree?

As the Psalm Setting Quest was formulating, for fun I figured out a way to determine in which order I would use the psalms to compose music to. A few columns, sorts and ranking formulas were added to a spreadsheet and “voilà!” an evenly mixed distribution of each psalm type. There’s actually one psalm type (Prophetic) that has just one psalm in it and I know this ranking system works when that psalm (#50) appears right in the middle of the list, as the 75th piece of music I will write.

An added benefit of using a spreadsheet to create the order, is that due dates could be easily scheduled, and even completion tracking could be setup to be very user-friendly (just check out the stats on the right →). If this all sounds computer-geeky-like to you, just remember that there’s some truth to the old cliché that “music and mathematics” go well together 😉

Well, the crux of it is that I started composing early, and have actually now finished my first piece.

It is Psalm 19.

I gathered several sources together to help me determine the content and perspective of each psalm, and according to a Wikipedia entry, the first few verses of this “Song of Praise”

present the heavenly bodies and their movement as a universal witness to the glory of God that is understood by people of every language. The language connects day and night as a continuous presentation. The words suggest energy, strength, joy, and light.

So I zeroed-in on that last sentence, and used it as the composition’s title: “Energy, Strength, Joy & Light.” I created four verses in this piece, one for each of those characteristics, and interjected a chorus using the meditative prayer in the last verse of the psalm. There are moments of ‘clumsiness’ particularly in the Strength verse and the chorus (a rising pattern on the vowel ‘o’ as in “of” – not an easy task to sing well!) which are hints at the psalm’s admittance of man’s presumptuousness when compared alongside God’s creations.

The instrumentation of this piece was determined with a very close outcome, by you. Click here to check out the poll results.

I started composing, wary of contrary motion, harmonic sequencing and melodic interest for all the performers. Below is the computer-generated audio (never an attractive proposition, especially when it comes to representing human voices), and I am making the sheet music available for free for one week only – go and print it now and give it to someone!

“Energy, Strength, Joy & Light”

[ca_audio url=”https://www.stephenpbrown.com/audio/019_EnergyStrengthJoyLight_DEMO.mp3″ width=”500″ height=”27″ css_class=”codeart-google-mp3-player” autoplay=”false”]

Having a plan in place, complete with 7 years’ worth of due dates, has created a great foundation for this massive project. Even though I am now ahead of schedule (I wasn’t even planning to start writing until my birthday this year, but couldn’t wait) there is some sort of sense of accomplishment in checking off a task.

Do you use project plans for your hobby or craft? Or do you just ‘wing it’ and see where it takes you? Let me know in the comments below.

How is ‘beautiful’ music defined?

This past week my wife asked me to compose something beautiful, preferably for the cello (as that’s her favourite instrument).

I said “What do you mean?”

“Not ‘intelligent’ or clever or busy, just something… beautiful.”

“Meaning what, exactly?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Like, a song that’s nice.”

“Oh, OK!” I said. “I’m right on it!”

 

Er… can you help me?!

 

What do you think she means? Am I displaying an incredible amount of utter ignorance here? I thought some of my choral music is particularly beautiful (especially “Lucy’s Song” using a text by Charles Dickens), and if you’ve heard “A Mother’s Lament” I’m sure you’ll agree that can be classified as ‘beautiful’ too.

But “beautiful music” seems to be a completely subjective matter (click it to tweet it!)

And apparently, what I’ve composed to date is not enough. I have a challenge here, folks, and I have an inkling as to the kind of thing I should be doing, but what are your thoughts? What makes a piece of music “BEAUTIFUL?” What are the characteristics, styles, intentions, moods, etc.? Help me write this piece by leaving a reply below, and I will most certainly dedicate the piece to you! Seriously.

Here’s an example of a cello piece that I think is beautiful. What do you think makes it so?

 

What makes this music “beautiful?”

I’m sure there are specific characteristics that make music ‘beautiful’ but what are they?

Nick Scott believes it is all to do with pacing. What does that mean?

One response on his post suggest “anything that comes from the heart” and I would add “as opposed to the head.” But again, what does that mean? How does a composer determine what someone else would find beautiful?

In response to a post on the Musica Sacra forum, bjerabek suggests the Golden Ratio is at play in anything beautiful. I can see that. I looked into the Golden Ratio during my sojourn at Cleveland State University some ten years ago, but how sad if that were that’s required to make beautiful music – doesn’t that make it “intelligent” or “clever” music?

Just a simple Google search for the most beautiful music in the world doesn’t really help, nor does Classic FM‘s overuse of the adjective.

So I’m wondering, what music do YOU find beautiful? And more importantly, WHY?