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?

Composing E: The Final Product

What a journey this has been! I do hope you’ve enjoyed it.

Well, our piece of music Sonata for Chamber Orchestra is complete. Probably. Like most things in life, there’s always room for a little change here and there but at the moment, I don’t forsee any such needs. OH! Tweetable 🙂

Click it to tweet it:
What we create is rarely fully complete – there’s always room for little changes! @Stephen_P_Brown 

I wrote the introduction and added a fun little coda (remember Dudley Moore’s numerous types of Endings?), and just tweaked a couple of passages here and there.

So, we have a result. Five and a half minutes of music that took over a month and four blog posts to create (see below). If you’d like to hear the piece live, it will be played by the Patel Conservatory Composers Orchestra on Monday, December 10 at 7pm in Tampa’s TECO Theatre (hope to see you there!)

But until then, this video will have to do.

(I love technology: you get to follow along the score as it plays)
(Even if you don’t read music!)

“Sonata for Chamber Orchestra” by Stephen P Brown

 

In conclusion, here are the posts that explore the piece as it is birthed. It’s probably best if you read them in this order:

Composing A: Foundation

Composing B: And So It Begins…

Composing C: The Main Event

Composing D: Development

 

Thanks for taking this journey with me. Please add your comments below – what do you think of this piece? What did you like about these posts? Should I do this again with another piece in the future? Who do you think would like to read this series – friends, colleagues, neighbors, or anyone else you know?

 

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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 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’

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…