. Interchanging Idioms: March 2008

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Classical FM top 300 list

Popular classical music is rather an odd beast. People's tastes change from year to year, and yet there always seems to be camps of supporters for each style of music - so some tastes don't necessarily change with the season.

There are those that say radio stations like Classical FM cater to boring or conservative tastes. However, it runs a survey every year to catch a glimpse as to what their listeners think are the best 300 pieces of classical music out today. Music from Mozart and Beethoven continue to rank highly among the most favourite pieces to listen to. That said, these same composers are the bread and butter for professional orchestras as well. While it may be nice to perform something new and different, the crowds still are better for music from the masters. Since it takes money to keep these organisations running, performing concerts that sell tickets is a necessity - and so the master's music continues to get performed.

What is also interested about the above linked article, are the types of 20th century music included on this list. Vaughn Williams is the most popular (2nd year running) with The Lark Ascending and third with Fantasia On A Theme Of Thomas Tallis. Elgar's Cello Concerto and Enigma Variations are in the top ten with Barber's Adagio for Strings, Jenkins' The Armed Man, A Mass for Peace and Holst's The Planets (one of my personal favourites) among the top twenty. Yes, all of these pieces are rather tonal, although it could be argued Vaughn Williams' Fantasia or Holst's The Planets have moments which are outside classical tonal structure.

It is interesting none of Britten's music was included in the top twenty (Peter Grimes came in at number 232). Most notably his War Requiem was absent from the entire list of 300 while Jenkin's similar piece (premiered in 2001) came in at number thirteen. I have not heard The Armed Man yet, so I can't really comment on it's style. Given the other pieces on the list and the notes about the influences coming from the French Renaissance song, L'homme armé, I think it's fairly safe to say it stays pretty close to the classical tonal world too.

I am heartened by the appearance of a fairly recent piece making it in the top twenty, as it means there is room for modern compositions to become part of the standard repertoire of classical music audiences. However, other pieces from living composers also made into the top 100, often these are film scores. Shore's Lord of the Rings, Williams' Schindler's List, Morricone's The Mission, Zimmer's Gladiator (although some suggest he used elements from The Planets for his score, so perhaps a nod to Holst is necessary) and Badelt's Pirates of the Caribbean are all within the top 100 and probably owe part of their popularity to the popularity of their films. But even with that, Williams has written scores for over 60 films so there must be something more to Schindler's List than just the films popularity. Certainly the The Mission is old enough (1986) to no longer support the score for its popularity.

So, what sort of music is it that "makes it" into the standard repertoire of a modern orchestra? What sort of classical music is it that appeals to a broad spectrum of people? I think it is fairly safe to say theme is a prime requisite. From the above listed films, theme plays a major role in the pieces. The other 20th century pieces also point toward theme as a major element of music's popularity. The theme from Holst's Jupiter became I Vow to Thee, My Country, an extremely popular British hymn all because of the beautiful theme. Theme and not necessarily tonality tends to be the common thread, at least among the modern compositions, having said that, the tonality of the piece can not venture too far from "classical traditions" either.

Are we locked into a neo-Romantic era, where if it isn't neo-Romantic it doesn't get performed? No, there are plenty of examples of modern composers who are anything but neo-Romantic who are getting performed. However, it does tend to be the neo-Romantic that are getting main stream attention. Again, perhaps Classic FM isn't the best source for what is new in classical music. I do think, however, it is a good judge of what is popular - what is main stream.

As a composer, it is important to be able to compose, to find a way to make a living. The list of choices are, teach (and continue studying, learning growing), film (which, if you can make it can be extremely lucrative - but making it isn't necessarily easy) or commissions - and commissions come when something you've done is successful. So, except for teaching, it is important for a composer to be aware of what is main stream in music. It might be worthwhile attempting something slightly challenging on occasion, but it also is a necessity (IMHO) for the composer to be able to compose in a main stream style, and yet provide a colour, a flavour that is his/her own.

My most recent foray into the classical music world is my Symphony No 1, Figuratively Speaking. The music was written with these thoughts in mind:

  • the music needed to have themes, which could be hummable, would be memorable.
  • it needed to stay somewhat tonal, although I certainly use bi-tonality in a number of sections
  • The intent was to write something with appeal to a large segment of society. My first symphony, IMHO, needed to be something which proved I could write in the main stream of public perception of classical music. If I succeed, then options two and/or three become obtainable. Other styles of music interest me, but as I find my "voice" in terms of composition, my hope is my "voice" will be heard. As my "voice" matures, it may end up pushing the boundaries of public appeal. However, when it is all over, it would be nice to have one piece that makes it on this list.

    Monday, March 17, 2008

    Five:15 by Scottish Opera

    Occasionally something new appears in opera, and not just a new production of the standard repertory, or even something new but someone establish. Scottish Opera, under the direction of Alex Reedijix, produced a series of five operas, all fifteen minutes in length, written by composers and librettists who come from backgrounds other than opera - which included Craig Armstrong (numerous film scores), Ian Rankin and Ron Butlin (notable authors).

    The Telegraph gave their review. I can't say I agree with all of Ruperts comments, but certainly I agree that Gesualdo was the highlight of the evening's performance. This portion of the programme was a collaboration of Craig Armstrong and Ian Rankin and really played to Craig's strengths. The music was powerful, lending both atmosphere and melody to the piece. Rhythms played a strong roll in the opening scene, and yet at other times completely transparent, allowing the emotions of the words to come through. The chamber ensemble was used to good effect bringing out a variety of tonal colours not noticed in the other pieces. The only real critique was it was too short. It could have been a full length opera and my hope is, Scottish Opera will take it this next step.

    I also agree with Rupert in questioning the lack of Scottish sounds, particularly in the The Queen of Goven. The sarod music was lovely, but as the story takes place in Glasgow, the lack of anything Scottish sounding gave the feeling this story really was taking place in India. There could have been a blending of music and cultures, but there wasn't. IMHO, the disappointment of the event.

    Dream Angus could have used a Scottish feel to it as well, but overall the music was fun. I enjoyed the performance as a result. There was a fair amount of talking in the production which was odd in my opinion. This was also a problem with The Perfect Woman. In both pieces there wasn't a clear reason for the spoken dialog. The music in the later was also a bit cartoonish. It's obvious that's what the composer was going for, but it consistent through the piece, ie., it started comical, but didn't retain it and certainly didn't have that feel in the end. So, musically The Perfect Woman felt unpolished.

    The first piece performed was The King's Conjecture about King James IV of Scotland. Again, I don't understand why there wasn't something Scottish about the music. That said, the ending trio of this piece was one of the most moving of the performance, musically building a sense of tension and anxiety - and yet hope, that brought tears to a number of people in the audience. Well done, for only having 15 mins to get us to that point.

    As I work on the music for my own premier of sketches from It Must Be Fate, I look back at this performance of Five:15 by Scottish Opera with an eye for improving my own music. What did they do right and how can I incorporate that into my music? What did not succeed, and how can I avoid those same pitfalls?

    Writing music is a never ending process, striving for something new and yet retaining enough of what works to ensure what's new works as well. The storyline isn't Scottish, so not having a Scottish feel is appropriate. But it is Greek, so (IMHO) there should be some homage paid to the modes in music - and I am. It is also a modern talk - the Fates as they are today - so there needs to be a modern feel to the music (I'm not talking atonality, but rather Urban). However, it is was just Urban music than it wouldn't retain the classical nature of these godesses - so this needs to be blended with the modes and more classical music to bring a depth to the characters.

    I will be very interested to see well how my own take on music's role in telling a story plays to an audience.

    Wednesday, March 12, 2008

    The Universal pause implied by an ...

    Writing an opera is an amazing process involving alot of back and forthing between Librettest and Composer. Some of this discourse is inventive and invigorating. Some is angry and territorial. Some is just silly...

    Said I: You missed the point! She pauses there!
    Said He: What do you mean, pauses? She is on a roll. This is a declamatory moment.
    Said I: There! There! By the three dots thingy... oh what's that called again? It isn't important... but they DEFINATELY mean pause!
    Said He: An ellipsis?
    Said I: That's it! It means pause!
    Said He: Actually it means: 'the series of three dots (periods) in a row that indicates a word or phrase has been omitted.'
    Said I: Well. Yeah. But in the international language of librettists that are writing lyrics at 3 am in the morning... it means pause!!
    Said He: But... listen to this incredible flowing lyric line I've composed... a pause would interrupt that...
    Said I: Oh...
    Said He: ...
    Said I: ...

    Actually, for the most part the working relationship between Chip and myself is a dynamic and fruitful one. We compliment each other's strengths and get excited by the same ideas. Occasionally we sweat the small stuff! ...

    Sunday, March 9, 2008

    The Genesis of an Opera

    Composer Chip Michael and I had decided we wished to produce an Opera together; something fresh, vital, modern and exciting! We knew that we wanted the rhythms of the story to resonate with modern life, and yet to hold historic truths and be truly indicative of human nature both past and present. Every good story begins with the "What if..." and the story of an opera is no different. In our particular case the What if sprung from the realization that of the entire pantheon of the Greek Gods, Fate is the last one standing. No one swears by Apollo any more, or prays to Zeus, but people all over the world still refer to their fate, greeting dramatic events with a fatalism that has changed little since the days of ancient Greece. So... What if... the Fates looked up from their weaving one day and realised they were the last Gods standing?

    Enter Chorus: "It wasn't always like this. This. I mean the cave, the weaving. Fate didn't always take these three aspects, hideous parodies of womanhood - Virginal Child, Pulchritudinous Mother, Withered Hag. Once they were all young, strong, glorious in the divinity of their birth - proud daughters of Zeus himself and Themis, the lovely Goddess of Necessity. Oh, how they shone! Three daughters, one incarnation - Fate. Atropos, the Inevitable One, the knower of things that are to be. Lachesis, the Measurer, knower of things that were, and sweet Clotho, the Manifest One, knower of things that are."

    "Oh, such gifts had these daughters of Zeus! They could dance, sing, play upon the lyre. They could paint, sculpt and weave. They could ride and hunt, wielding bow and falcon with deadly grace. They invented the seven letters of the Greek alphabet, an unparalleled gift to the humans. And how they fought! In the legions of the Gods there were few with their bravery. When Zeus clashed with the Titans, his daughters, along with the rest of the Pantheon fought to beat the monsters back, and Fate killed two of the giants, a feat even their brother Apollo couldn't match."

    "It was jealousy of these accomplishments which led Apollo to complain to Zeus. ’How could Fate possibly be doing their job and properly looking after the Human Race', he whined. 'After all, the humans have been breeding fruitfully for hundreds of years - years that Fate has spent gallivanting with the court, making merry and (rightfully so) fighting at your side. With so many more humans to look after, how, mighty Zeus, can she ever find time for it all?'"

    "Zeus was wise to Apollo's ploy and knew that the motive for this slander was envy, but still, a seed was planted. Before long Zeus doubted the girls. Their appearance at a banquet or a hunt would be greeted with genial questioning that soon turned to approbation. It was in less than the turn of a human's paltry lifespan that the paranoia planted by a petty sibling grew into the rage that caused Zeus to banish his favorite daughters to their rocky tomb. Condemned to do nothing with their talents and gifts but spin, measure and cut the glittering threads of human life spans."

    "The Fates fought the boredom of their confinement, weaving the human threads into a tapestry of astounding beauty. They sang to each other and composed great poems and plays using their alphabet. They danced and trained with sticks in place of their swords. They speculated, dreamed and wished after the life they would lead when Zeus came to his senses. But the years became decades, slipped into centuries and stretched to millennia - and Zeus never came. Over time the singing and storytelling dried up, the dancing and training stopped. Fate began to focus the entirety of her intelligence on the gigantic tapestry of humanity. The great blue world shrunk to the dimensions of a tiny cave off the cliffs of Mt. Olympus and the glittering play of threads by torchlight."

    "And now? Centuries, eons later? I ask myself if maybe they have been alone too long. What would have happened if they had looked up from their weaving long enough to notice that Apollo and Zeus had both fallen away lost in the mists of time. Fate are the last of the old Gods to rule. Don't get me wrong, the others are still there, it's just that only Fate has kept her place in the hearts and minds of man. Only Fate. I have observed through the years, content at last that this is the final chapter of a glorious history. My job? To tell that history - to portray in some small way the sense of God-head, the majesty and the glory that resided, resides, in the person(s) of Fate. Only Fate is not cooperating. The days when Gods walked among men are over, gone, dust! But Clotho has different ideas."

    And from that germ of an idea our opera has grown. Our Clotho re-christens herself Chloe and heads to earth to experience life and to understand the humans whose destiny she weaves. Her sisters throw off their mother/hag aspects and join her. Together the three fates will discover what it means to be human, and along the way discover their own humanity.

    Wednesday, March 5, 2008

    Interchanging Idioms

    ...from concept to concert

    photo by Clare Martin

    When I was much younger, playing trombone in high school in Wyoming, I dreamt I would one day write a symphony. However, life often interjected and steered me through a variety of different paths, from fatherhood, to military service and to software engineering - only to eventually end up studying music again, this time in Edinburgh.

    Well, the dream is now a reality; the finishing touches to Figuratively Speaking are done, the parts are being prepared and a concert has been set for June 4th, 2008. The overall piece is a collection of cliche' which are "translated" into musical terms, figures of speech with the orchestra as the metaphor.

    Initially, two years ago, I wrote the first movement thinking this would be a standard four movement symphony. The first movement, The Road goes both ways felt like a nice beginning. The concept, a single motif manipulated to the point it "goes both ways" and then some, really took off during the compositional process.

    However, as I began the process of chosing the second figure of speech, there was a war between the one I thought would be second and the one which ended up second. Time flies when you're having fun wasn't actually one of the cliche's I'd originally chosen, but the melodic ideas I had for Don't tell your secrets to the fence didn't fit the title. It was eventually my daughter who told me the second movement, nearly finished sounded like too much fun to be about secrets. And so the title stuck.

    And so was I. There were still three more titles I wanted to explore and I was nearly finished with the second movement. You can't catch rabbits with drums was just too good of a title (with concepts for lots of percussion) for it to go by the wayside. Don't tell your secrets... was one I felt really needed to be included. And the final piece was always set to be Water is like the sun as it culminates the symphony by bringing back all the previous motif's in such a way to show their simularities regardless of their differences.

    Thus, midway through last year the symphony ended up become a five movement work. Much of the groundwork for the motif's had been done with numerous ideas already sent to the scrap pile (for use in other works possibly, but already opted out of this one). All I needed to do was actually put in the work to finish the music. I don't mean to make little of that process - but it's really a bit too much to actually post on a blog.

    Once the first draft of all five movements were done, I put the entire symphony through a midi realisation attempting to get as close as possible as to what a live orchestra would sound like. I then had my wife, daughter and numerous friends listen to it for comments. And boy were there comments (not all bad, mind you). What I appreciated the most was the nuances people picked up on that I'd not noticed being too close to the compositional process.

    My wife, who actually suggested our return to university to complete our education, had taken the same Bachelors of Music course. So, her comments were extremely helpful, speaking in concise musical terms, with ideas and suggestions for nearly every movement.

    After several months of honing the music, I felt it was complete and needed to find an orchestra willing to play it's premier. We're good friends with some of the members of Edinburgh Symphony Orchestra and without too much conjoling, were able to convince them to play the piece. However, getting a conductor would have been cost prohibitive, so... I have taken on the reigns myself. While I have conducted numerous smaller ensembles before, this will be my first appearance infront of a full symphony.

    The process is still not done. We are a few months before the concert is a reality, and while it feels very real, I am right now in the process of ensuring all the parts are readable and my wife is working on the publicity and arranging details with the hall. As we get closer I know other elements of putting on a concert will undoubtably pop up and need attention - but for now, I am relishing in the concept - I have written my first symphony.