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.

 

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.

 

What kind of choral music do you like?

So, composition #3 is complete – a piece for solo piano. It is most charming and my wife Melissa loves it. I’ll publish it next week as there are some administrative details to wrap up first.

Composition #4 is already underway and called “Wind Quintet 2” (how imaginative is that?), and I was thinking about where composition #5 might take us on our journey: I’d like to do a piece for unaccompanied (“a cappella”) choir but am undecided whether to write for soprano, alto and baritone voices, or the more traditional soprano, alto, tenor and bass.

But my biggest quandary is the style. Can you help me?

Princeton Community Chorus Jersey Transit

Princeton-based “Jersey Transit” is an “a cappella” vocal choir

The vocal piece will be based on psalm 130, a Pilgrim Song, and is basically the sorrowful author’s crying out to God for mercy, but s/he uses the prayer as an example for others to keep hold of hope for themselves.

What do you think?

 

(Click this link if you don’t see a poll question above: http://poll.fm/49tgx)
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World Premiere Was Wonderful!

Last month I had the distinct honor of attending a Holiday concert in a rather chilly New Jersey, during which my Global Music Award winning piece Wind Quintet 1 was played for the very first time. Thanks to Jane Rondin and the Zephyrs Winds, I got to hear what the ‘human element’ could add to the composition I’d been hearing in my head and online for weeks.

Click it to tweet it:
“Direct human interaction transforms the way we experience music.” (Recordings vs. live concerts) @Stephen_P_Brown

It was pretty good!

The audience seemed to really enjoy all four movements and I’m so pleased there were many friends & fans who were able to join us before (for drinks in town), during and after the concert – thank you. It’s always really nice to see familiar faces and meet new folk, too.

For those of you who were not able to attend, here’s what happened:

Stephen P Brown’s “Wind Quintet 1”

Click here to download the sheet music

 

Do you like this piece?

Let me know in the comments below – it’s probably the easiest [non-live] way to stay in touch with what you like and don’t like.

Give me your feedback and that way, I can write better music!

 

Oh, and please forward this blog post to one of your friends. You just may be surprised who likes it!

 

Wind Quintet 1 by Stephen P Brown wins Global Music Award

 

 

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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!

 

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