#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/

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.

 

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.

 

Exclusive “Schmooze with Stephen”

Let’s take a break from seeing how a composition is created for a moment, because here’s something really exciting for you.

Hand-painted artwork from Malawi

Over the next couple of months I have three pretty important events (amongst many others) taking place around the USA. All three are featuring new pieces of mine, including the Sonata for Chamber Orchestra we’ve been exploring in this blog, a brand new marimba concerto (in which I’ll attempt to play the solo part – should’ve been a bit kinder, methinks!), my string quartet, my wind quintet, and a cute little ditty called Green Painting based on one of three pictures I bought from a legless (literally) street vendor in Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi (You can hear the piece on my Reverbnation page)

Lots going on, right?

Well, here’s the really exciting part:

My composition Wind Quintet 1 just won a Global Music Award and will be premiered at the Madison Arts Festival in New Jersey on Friday, November 23 at 7:30pm. That’s Thanksgiving weekend, and I’m going to be in town 🙂 Let’s celebrate the Award together!

So, if you are an SPB email subscriber or SPB blog reader then here’s something exclusive for you: meet me at 6pm and lets hang out before the concert at 54 Main St (that’s the name of the bar/ restaurant). And be sure to ask the bar staff for a Schmooze! (It’s a non-alcoholic drink – recipe here). We can then convoy up the street a couple of blocks to the concert venue.

Oh, and there’s a reception after the concert, too, for everyone who attends.

If you’re in NJ that weekend, I look forward to seeing you at the concert. If you’re not in NJ that weekend – hurry up & get your plane tickets! 🙂

Click it to tweet it:

@Stephen_P_Brown invited me to an exclusive pre-concert “Schmooze with Stephen” hangout. Yey!

 

.