Sketches of "Vermont State Fair"

I am in the midst of composing a new work for band (and probably an orchestral version, as well) called Vermont State Fair.  I wrote about the inspiration behind the piece back in April here.  This picture shows a few of my "sketches" (that's a fancy way of saying "my notes and ideas"). At this stage, I am trying to come up with a several different motives that I can use and develop throughout the piece.  Because the setting is a noisy and exciting fair (think people, rides, games, and horse racing), I anticipate moving between different melodies, motives, and sections frequently to give the piece a bombastic and fun feeling and give a sense of the exciting atmosphere.  I have about ten motives/ideas/melodies so far and I hope to develop several more.  I have also started planning out the progression of music - what order these things will happen in - and working on some orchestration in Finale.

This is a fun piece to write - a range of different kinds of music, but all fun and exciting.  Stay tuned!

Evolving Ideas

It's interesting to look back at my sketches for a piece - my initial ideas, and see how they evolve into the final version.  Sometimes, in the beginning, I have what I think is a great idea for a piece, a great motive, melody, etc.  But inevitably that first version I come up with will not remain the same.  It evolves in someway, through the process of working with the material very closely and making many decisions about it.  Even the scope of the whole work itself - the length, the meaning, the inspiration, the direction - can change. Back on March 9th, I posted here about initial ideas I had for a new choral work.  While finishing up Magnolia Star over the past few weeks, I have found little bits of time to think about this new piece and play with the initial ideas.  Many of the ideas I discussed in the post weeks ago are still very much on target.  However, two main evolutions have happened with this piece recently, which made me think about this whole idea of evolving ideas for a work:

1. The text: My initial idea was to just use the word "Alleluia" for the text.  Then I realized that when the piece reaches its climax, it will really need a contrasting section, and it would be ideal to change the text at that point.  It would be powerful to set up an ostinato with just this one word, for several minutes as the piece builds, and then when the climax arrives, open up a new world with a change in music and text.   I have been thinking about setting Isaiah 55:12 for some time, but I kept thinking that it would be too short a text to stand on its own.  Perfect!  I can start with "Alleluia," then set the verse, and then end with "Alleluia."

Alleluia For ye shall go out with joy, and be led forth with peace:  the mountains and the hills shall break forth before you into singing. Alleluia

2. I have been struggling with how to start the piece - whether to begin with all four voices, or just sopranos, or sopranos and altos, etc. The repeating ostinato that I'm using starts with a D major chord, which I thought would be a beautiful way to begin the piece.  Again, as I thought more and got deeper into the material, I started to think that this needed to change.  While the D major chord would make a perfectly beautiful first sound, the piece is really about building to a climax via a repeating ostinato, adding counterpoint and growing slowly.  So, in that way it makes sense to start with just the sopranos, stating the simple melody as a monophonic line.  Then, perhaps I bring in the altos to add some counterpoint.  And then, after two statements of the ostinato, the full choir arrives with that D major chord and the piece continues to build.  That's where I am now in my thinking, but it could change!

Magnolia Star - Done! (Almost)

Today I'm putting the final edits on (all 38 pages! of) Magnolia Star, a new 6 minute work for wind ensemble. I will be posting more about the piece soon - what inspired it, an audio clip, etc.  For now I just wanted to share a bit about the editing process I have been doing this past week.  The bulk of the music was finished a couple of weeks ago, but there were still a few holes and spots I wasn't satisfied with.  So over the past couple of weeks I have been focusing on those spots and also looking at every element of the piece and asking myself, "Is this what I want here?"  And, "is this the best I can do, or is there anything else I can do to make this better?"

Now I have resolved most of those issues and have a fairly final score sitting in front of me on my desk.  I have also gone through each page zoomed in at 200% to make sure all the dynamics are aligned and no markings are colliding on the page.  I also made sure all the trumpet muting spots were marked, and that all the percussion instruments are marked appropriately.  Really, the piece is done.

But this is one of the points I always struggle with - as a composer, how do we really know when the work is done?  How do we know that we have created the work we intended, and that there is nothing left to improve upon? Or maybe that's not the point - surely there is something that can be improved upon.  But that's ok? We aren't striving for a "perfect" work, right?  That's probably a whole separate debate. I think of a painter - when they step back from a painting, put on a few more brush strokes, then a couple more, and then they are done.  Wait - how did they decide that they didn't need to add a few more strokes, or change something?

I think often times it is a mixture of things:

  • part letting go after obsessing in a detailed way over the work;
  • part "feeling" that the work is done, and;
  • part believing in the many decisions you have made throughout the course of creating the work.

Composers and other types of creators constantly question ourselves throughout the creative process - which is important and necessary.  But at some point, we have to lay down the pen and decide that the work is done.