Behind the Scenes

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 - Inspiration and Audio

Here is a midi sample of the first 3 minutes of Magnolia Star for Wind Ensemble (the full work is a little over 6 minutes): [audio]

And here are the program notes for the piece:

When I was playing saxophone in my middle school jazz band, we started every rehearsal the same way – with an improvisation exercise that our director created. It was a simple yet brilliant exercise for teaching beginning improvisation and allowing everyone in the band a chance to “solo.” As a warm-up at the opening of each rehearsal, the whole band played the blues scale ascending, resting for one measure, descending, and resting for another measure.

During the measures of rest, each member of the band took turns improvising a solo. Looking back, this exercise not only got the band swinging together from the start of rehearsal, but it made improvisation, a daunting musical task to many, seem within everyone’s abilities. This experience was my introduction to the blues scale, and I have long wanted to write a piece inspired by this group of pitches. In Magnolia Star, I explore various ways to use these pitches in harmonies, melodies, and timbres, creating a diverse set of ideas that will go beyond sounds that we typically associate with the blues scale. I didn’t want to create a “blues” piece, but rather a piece in my own musical voice that uses and pays homage to the blues scale.

Nearly all of the pitches used in Magnolia Star fit into the concert C blues scale. It is interesting to note that embedded within the C blues scale are both a C minor triad, an Eb minor triad, and an Eb major triad. I explore the alternation of these tonal areas right from the start of the piece, and continue to employ them in different ways throughout the entire work.

When I first started improvising ideas for this piece based around the blues scale, I began to hear the influence of driving rhythms and sonorities which reminded me of trains. The railroad became a important second influence of this piece alongside the blues scale.

The American railroad not only provides some intriguing sonic ideas, but it also provides an intimate connection to the growth of jazz and blues in America. In the late 19th century, the Illinois Central Railroad constructed rail lines that stretched from New Orleans and the “Delta South” all the way north to Chicago. Many southern musicians traveled north via the railroad, bringing “delta blues” and other idioms to northern parts of the country. The railroad was also the inspiration for countless blues songs by a wide variety of artists. Simply put, the railroad was crucial to the dissemination of jazz and blues in the early 20th century.

Magnolia Star was an Illinois Central train that ran from New Orleans to Chicago with the famous Panama Limited in the mid 20th century.

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.

Idea for a New Piece

Sometimes I just improvise at the piano to come up with ideas that might turn into something.  Occasionally an idea sticks around, comes back to me several days later, and I'm not sure why (at the time).  But often times, ideas like that are the seeds for a new work.  This happened a few days ago - I came up with a simple little chord progression that sounded nice, but disregarded it and went back to work on something else. I didn't even write it down.  Then on Wednesday I was sitting at the piano and I found myself fiddling with this chord progression again. Now the ideas have been in my head almost non-stop for the past few days.  Even though it is in some ways distracting from a piece I'm trying to finish (Magnolia Star for wind ensemble), it's always exciting when this sort of inspiration happens, and I don't mind the distraction one bit. I think the ideas will work great for both an SATB choral piece and possibly a wind band transcription.  The essence of the idea is an 8 bar harmonic progression  in 3/4 time that would be repeated, each time adding a new layer of counterpoint, or a new voice, etc.  It will definitely start as a choral work, and I'm thinking the text might just be "Alleluia."  The idea reminds me in some ways of Mozart's Dona Nobis Pacem canon, which has a special place in my heart because it is sung community-sing style at the conclusion of the Eastman Holiday Sing each year in December.   Here is the 2010 performance directed by the great Mark Scatterday (even though you can't see him in the video):

WCMW 2012 - Details Coming Soon!

Last summer, I co-founded the Westminster Chamber Music Workshop, a one-week summer series of free musical events for the community.  It featured top notch professional musicians from the local and regional area, presenting performances and lectures on a wide range of musical topics. This year, we have some exciting plans for the Workshop, and we are currently finalizing details for the events.  I can't say too much yet, other than to say stay tuned!  My hope is that we will be able to announce all the exciting details in the coming few weeks.

My Studio Tour

This is where a lot of the work happens... my little studio!







I love having dual monitors on my desk so I can have multiple programs open at once.







I have a full-size keyboard with headphones set up next to my desk (in front of a window), so I can play or improvise and then input it into Finale right away.