Why I’m the slowest car on the road

 

Over the past few years I’ve noticed I’m usually the slowest car on the road.

Today, find out why.

And hear about one of the decisions/ choices I’ve made that causes it!

And then, if you dare, listen to how your own driving decisions are directly affecting the society we live in today.

Click to play the video below to reveal all.

In case you’re wondering: yes, my wife gets totally embarrassed whilst everyone else is passing us!

We all have a multitude of decisions to make everyday, and I’d love to know why you think it is OK (or not) to exceed the speed limits. Seriously, whilst I am not yet convinced that my own desires and assessment of safety are more important than the law of the land I choose to live in, you may have some valid reasons for speeding that I’d like to hear about.

Please let me know in the comments below what you think about speeding/ ignoring the laws of the road/ whether or not driving has become a right more than a privilege, and any other related thoughts.

As always, I reserve the right to delete any inappropriate comments.

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.

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…

 

Too adventurous for our own good?

There was recently an unscientific poll taken amongst office workers in the USA. Whilst a myriad of issues, concerns, quirks and considerations could be used to undermine the results, I’m not really caring. Instead, I’m choosing to see that classical music not only made it onto the list, but is way, way up there in third place.

 

My favorite relaxation technique is…

  • Walking or jogging – 47%
  • Meditating or deep breathing – 19%
  • Gardening – 12%
  • Doing yoga – 6%
  • Listening to classical music – 15%

Total votes: 1147

Apart from the momentary joy, doesn’t this bear thinking about?

We have lots of Garden Centers and garden sections of superstores, and many small yoga clubs and sports stores that sell yoga equipment (& CDs). Some of the superstores even have music/ entertainment sections. So I wonder why the range of classical music CDs is shrinking so much? According to this survey, we should be seeing more concerts and more options available for purchase! One of the problems (in my humble opinion) is that the classical music recordings available all seem to be the same.

Not to the trained ear, perhaps, but to the vast majority of people who might enjoy classical music, they only need one CD of Beethoven or Mozart, yet the industry DROWNS us with the same material over and over. Not sure there are many other genres that do that… perhaps Opera. One young professional was recently asked why they didn’t attend classical music concerts, to which his reply was “they’re all the same. There’s nothing new I like.”

Woah!

The first family car I remember – a Ford Cortina (UK)

This thought is worth sharing. Click the sentence below to Tweet it, or copy and paste
There are two types of new classical music: that the ticket buyers like and that they don’t. Balance is important! via @Stephen_P_Brown

And ‘new’ doesn’t necessarily have to mean unpalatable Stockhausen or Birtwhistle (warning: link to audio dissonance), either. Think about it: Pop music primarily uses the same chord sequences over and over and over, yet there is still a ton of new music being produced on a daily basis, both by the commercial heavyweights (labels) as well as grass roots. To some of my non-Western friends who don’t get to hear much music at all, they thought Gaga could have been a breakaway soloist from Abba (warning: link to endless audio pleasure). Nice! Lyrics may change, but stories & topics don’t much. Tunes may alter slightly, but the beat and chord patterns don’t much.

So why does the classical music industry not encourage more ‘palatable’ new works, even if they sound similar to previous compositions? Even the experimental, advanced, high-tech, forward-thinking, slightly differing Formula 1 race cars still have four wheels, a couple of mirrors and the need for speed, just like my dad’s old family Ford Cortina of the 1970s.

I’m gonna change that… I’m going to join the rest of the composers who feel no shame in writing music that is ‘likable’ and ‘listenable’ and see what happens – see who attends my concerts and buys my CDs (when I get to make one). Hey, if one of my pieces can attract some 23,000 YouTube views………..!

 

Up and up and up and…

Fifth Dimension’s “Up, up and away in my beautiful balloon” comes to mind. Not that the song has any bearing on my composition, but the title simply reflects the experience of driving over Skyway Bridge – the gateway to Tampa Bay.

It’s a scary ride. If you repeatedly get in line for the latest roller coasters at theme parks, you may just wonder what all the fuss is about, but for most mere mortals, Skyway Bridge [Wikipedia link] causes anxiety rarely experienced elsewhere. Up, and up, and up, and up you go – with supports between the driving lanes (not on the outsides) and only a concrete barrier between your 65 mph vehicle and a 175ft drop into usually calm warm water.

Interestingly, the access to the bridge on both sides is a long causeway. There are a lot of causeways in the Tampa Bay area, which fascinate me – some are literally two or three feet above the water line (Route 60, perhaps) yet never seem to get wet (except when it rains). I don’t think I’ve ever been in an environment where a lake or sea doesn’t have moments of swelling.

Surf Sailing from the approach to Skyway Bridge

– yes, it’s that far.

Anyhow, both sides of the bridge host fishing piers and state parks (actually, they are the approaches to the previous bridge), but the north side also sports beaches and several water enthusiast sites, including surf-sailing.

The beginning of the second movement in my piece reflects the monotony of driving on a long, flat causeway by utilizing a Philip-Glass-like compositional technique. Although there’s much to look at for passengers, it’s a boring drive. And, of course, one has to slow down at the toll booth and then pick up speed again. It’s in the music, too.

Then begins the climb. The ‘up, and up, and up. And up… And up’ climb. There’s no descent in the music because descents always are a lot quicker than climbing, and usually we’re so relieved to be over the apex that we don’t even notice coming down. Until we reach the other causeway, and enjoy the ride a little more – reflected in the music by a more relaxed tempo (speed).