. Interchanging Idioms: May 2008

Friday, May 30, 2008

The Idea is catching on....

Ok, so maybe I can't claim the idea to mix pop music and classical music. And since my concert is yet to happen, I can't even claim to be the influence of other groups trying a similar mix of pop and classical. However, it is heartening to hear the String Orchestra of New York City, or SONYC as they are more commonly know, is playing some new music with just this same sort of mix.

The New York Times review of their performance speaks of several composers works covering a blending of styles from evertyhing from Jazz to Pop to Afro-Cuban to Rap.

Not only does this encourage my own direction of music composition, I think I've found an orchestra I'd like to compose something for...

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

News Flash: Opera Plots are Terrible

Or so says Ian McEwan. Well he is right. And wrong. Opera has a long tradition of pulling stories from literature, including folk tales and the oral tradition. This means the plots are varied and uneven with fantastical elements that can beggar belief. (Ever read the original story of Cinderella? Brutal!) Add to this the fact that the composer and librettist are often speaking two different languages and the recipe for plot disaster is created. The legendary exploits of composers slashing the libretto to fit the music are numerous, as are the battle of wills between the artist of the written word and the master of the musical notes.

Where I think the problem comes in is when one element or the other assumes superiority - when story and music are at war, one element will lose out and that is most often the story.

So how do Chip and I solve this power struggle to ensure that our collaborations produce end products that have both exquisite music and exciting and engrossing story? Rather the same way we approach our marriage - as a partnership - hard won by compromise, communication and collaboration!

Chip and I have the benefit of a shared musical knowledge - I am also a composer. We also share a love of words - I am a novelist, Chip is a poet. At the beginning of a new project, we bandy ideas about for a story, hashing out the main plot and themes. I will then write a one page 'treatment' similar to that used for a film pitch. Chip then uses this treatment to create musical themes and motives - which the two of us will then hash over keeping this, changing that, adding a bit until we both feel we have a musical landscape we can work in. From that point the real writing begins. Chip and I are both comfortable working with outlines, so firstly I will create the story arc and Chip will create a musical sketch to match. From there, we have the bones of our opera and we can begin to put flesh upon them.

Working this intensively close can lead to argument and passionate outbursts, but in the end we create a Yin/Yan kind of opera where the music serves the text, and the text serves the music. Many times we forget who had which idea, or who created what, but that really doesn't matter. What matters is the story - words spoken and thoughts intoned - what matters is the opera!

Monday, May 26, 2008

Is the Monkey searching for Immortality, or is Opera searching for something new

Innovation in music and art is pretty much constant. While there are those who will follow in the footsteps of an innovator, creating a wave of "new works" in what ever the newest style happens to be, there are other's who are out to find that next horizon. Unfortunately, a good portion of the 20th century was spent exploring, exposing and espousing so many different crazes it's hard to know what worked and what didn't. One key is determining how well the original work was able to be reproduced by other performers. If it couldn't be re-created, then it may have been a work of art, a quality performance, but it isn't a form that will last; it is performer dependant.

The Spoleto Festival in the USA is where "Monkey: Journey to the West" is getting its American debut. The "opera" is a collection of animations, acrobats, aerialists, opera singers, pit orchestra, pop music and much more. The original production was done at the Manchester International Festival last year to rave reviews and will likely get the same in the US. Damon Albarn, the composer and lead singer for British pop band Blur, says "Monkey" is a "new kind of thing." And so it is, sort of…

Cirque du Soleil started a trend of presenting a storyline as part of the acrobatic entertainment of their form of circus. They also augmented the stunning aerials and acrobats with music that wasn't classical, but wasn't really pop either - and then added vocal pyro-techniques to further their art form. The shows are amazing, but they're not really opera. While the vocalists are amazing, it is the backdrop to the visuals on stage. The story is part of the show, but a tenuous one. Cirque du Soleil is acrobats and aerials that are then tied together (loosely) with a story line and music. Their shows are wonder entertainment, but neither classify as opera.

As wonderfully entertaining as they are, there is a problem duplicating them. Cirque du Soleil has numerous shows, some travel, some are on permanent location in Las Vegas. But so far, no one has successfully taken their stories and re-mounted them. "Monkey" is likely to suffer the same fate. As amazing a show as it is, well worth going to see, it is such a diverse collection of artists it will be difficult at best for anyone else to create their own production.

Someone might do away with the animation at the beginning; that could be done with programme notes. Maybe the acrobatics could be replaced with more "traditional" choreography, but to do so would take away so much from the performance, the piece would seem flat. The storyline isn't so interesting to retain our interest; that isn't the focus of this production. Again, it is a wonderful show. I am only suggesting that it isn't the new direction for opera.

Opera, IMHO, depends on the work going beyond the individual performer and into something more timeless. It should be able to be taken by other artists and re-created. This doesn't mean the original production needs to be duplicated; numerous productions of Turandot have been mounted with everything from traditional Chinese settings to downtown China town in New York - and probably a lot more even more diverse. Turandot isn't an opera I particular care for the story, but as an opera, it works.

It Must Be Fate is our attempt at something new. I won't get into all the concepts of what's new about it (as some of the concepts are still forming and I'd really like to get them into production before letting the cat out of the bag, so to speak), but it is an attempt to take opera in a new direction. However, there is also a focus in the writing of the work to make it independent of specific performers. The biggest question will be how well operatic performers can do with some of the modern pyro-techniques of urban, funk, rock and soul. It's not easy music, but it is definitely new.

Friday, May 23, 2008

What's happening in Classical music scene

I love reading the online NY Times Music page. While I can attend any of the events (the cost of the last minute flight would break the bank), it is nice to keep up with what's happening. There is a premier of an opera this week (what?? another opera premiering????) - but it's a premier of a production of an opera from 1792, so not quite the same was our own "It Must Be Fate"... (whew).

New Orleans is being treated to N.O. Music Alive and their blend of classical and jazz.

On the other side of the US, Thomas Adès is conducting the Los Angles Chamber Orchestra at the Disney Hall.

  • Locally, the Edinburgh Light Orchestra is performing at the Queen's Hall on Saturday.
  • The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra with Julian Rachlin performing Brahms and Strauss is performing at the Royal Festival Hall, London tonight (Friday).
  • Cornwall has something interesting - Music by composers living in Cornwall is in Truro tonight.
  • The Milton Keynes City Orchestra is performing at Dorchester Abbey on Saturday. The Oxford Chamber Orchestra is performing at Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford on Saturday as well.

    Many more events are listed on http://www.concert-diary.com I hope to see you at one of them!

  • Thursday, May 22, 2008

    Broadway, Music worthy of a listen

    I am a fan of Broadway, particularly the musicals. I have long felt the modern Broadway composers, such as Hamlisch, Sondheim and Schwartz have often been overlooked by the classical world because of the "simplicity" of Broadway music. This is an unfortunate misconception. Anyone who has ever tried to sing a Sondheim score knows just how difficult the music can be. While Hamlisch and Schwartz tend to be more strophic in their song composition, even they come up with elements of music that are challenging for even the most accomplished performers.

    The range a vocalist needs to be adept at for most Broadway music leads exceeds most lead roles by Mozart. Occasionally, Mozart uses the ultra high coloratura Soprano range, but as this range is often more effectual (pyrotechnics) and not necessarily good for understanding the words Broadway tends to avoid it's use - as the words are important. Which points to another difference between opera and Broadway; the libretto in opera, particularly in late 20th century opera, tends to be obtuse, more dealing with the inner struggle than the dialogue between characters. In the Broadway musical, the lyrics are meant to be more like conversation. Plays without music often allow the dialogue to be false, so the audience has to extrapolate thoughts behind the words rather than the words themselves. Plays with music (musicals) are more direct; the actors sing what they are thinking/feeling. This is a generalization, but true in most cases. This doesn't preclude sub-text. Sweeney Todd is filled with sub-text, as is Wicked and A Chorus Line. It's possible to sing some of the songs with a single dimension, and ignore the subtleties, but it is just as possible to dive deep into them and glean as much as you might with an opera libretto.

    So, what of the music? Opera was long considered the place for innovation, the place where new forms were explored. But somewhere in the early 20th century the demand that opera be sung in a certain manner restricted opera to a certain sound. Yes, operas like Berg's Wozzeck or Nono's Prometeo still strive for innovation. But is it necessary to push the limits of audience appreciation/understanding to create something new?

    Kristin Chenoweth in “Showstoppers,” conducted by Marvin Hamlisch, at Avery Fisher Hall.

    One of the reasons people love Mozart, Donizetti or Puccini are their wonderful melodies. People who aren't fans of opera are still likely to recognize tunes from these masters because they have become so much a part of our musical fabric. They understand the need to connect with their audience with the music.

    Broadway composers feel this same need. The music must make a connection. Maybe all the tunes aren't "hummable", but there should be something to "take away" from the performance. Into the Woods has the duet of the Princes. Wicked has Popular. A Chorus Line has Nothing. When Bernstein wrote the music for West Side Story, it was done to be performed on Broadway. Since then, the West Side Story Suite is a favourite among orchestras looking for something challenging yet fun to perform. Recently, Hamlisch conducted the New York Philharmonic in a series of orchestrations of Broadway tunes. The NY Times review remarked at how wonderfully this music comes across given the right treatment with a quality orchestra.

    Maybe it's not the music that is treated so disparagingly - but the performers. Maybe, because Broadway is ultimately about making a profit so fewer musicians are hired (often a sticking point for negotiations with the musicians union), or orchestrations are trimmed to make it easier to mount productions without extensive rehearsals. The drive for profitability drags down the quality and so the classical world looks down on the music form in general.


    In the June concert, we will be presenting the taster portion of "It Must Be Fate" with a piano, leads and chorus. I had thought about a fuller orchestration, but costs and time prevented it. I've also incorporated aspects of modern music into the musical style. So, the question is, will the audience look down on the opera because of the lack of orchestration, or the modern music style - or will they look beyond these to see the gem in the rough?

    The vocalists singing in the opera are thrilled with the music. It's fun to sing (there are melodies) and yet, some of the most challenging music they've had to work with this year - in terms of rhythm and style. The pianist is having a wonderful time trying to get his head around all the cross rhythms. He says it's possible, but it is taking more work than the score initially suggests. The music isn't easy, but it is melodic. The orchestration isn't lush, but it is complex. This is a work in progress, so it is rough - but worth the work.

    Wednesday, May 21, 2008

    Tickets sales and classical music

    Money may be the root of all evil, but without it putting on a classical music concert is nearly impossible. Getting money for one concert is tough, but when looking at the long range picture (future concerts) it's important to know how to leverage a current event to the greatest advantage.

    Publicity for a classical music event is primarily an attempt to get tickets sold, people through the door of a concert. And in some respects the publicity campaign we've been running is working. I was stopped on the street the other day because someone recognised my face from the poster; they mentioned how excited they were and looking forward to the concert (posters working, check). A lecturer at Edinburgh University mentioned to his students about the concert fliers encouraging them to all attend (fliers working, check). One of the many publication we sent press releases to actually came back with notification they would be printing an article this week (press releases working, check).

    However, publicity is not just to get bums on seats. There is a certain number of people we'd like to know about the event so future events are possible. This comes down to the whole process of money in terms of classical music. If we were relying on ticket sales to pay for the cost of the event, we'd be in a world of hurt. While it is possible we might break even (and that's a pretty big might), this is mostly due to corporate sponsorship. But in order to get future sponsorship, we need the current event to get the right kind of publicity, the right kind of people to hear about it (and potentially attend).

    In order to do this, we first needed to sort out who it is we thought might be the right kind of people. Our list included the Artistic Directors, or Chief Executives from all the major music organisations in the area. So, for Edinburgh this includes, the Edinburgh Festival, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Scottish Opera (to start). Politically connected people, like the First Minister of Scotland, the Lord Provost, and the Cultural Minister for Scotland were on our list. The other organisations that deal with funding in terms of music like the Scottish Arts Council and the heads of the universities. Then there are the reviewers and agents who might get us more publicity, or future work. All these ended up making a list of over a hundred people who were mailed an invitation to our event. Some, a very few, were offered complimentary tickets, but most were just given a personal invitation. How many of these people actually show up? It's hard to know at this point, but marketing studies suggest 10% is a good mark.

    There are also "friends" lists from the music organisations we're working with on this concert. The Edinburgh Quartet, the Edinburgh Symphony Orchestra and Central Hall all have lists of people who want updates to their schedules. Asking permission to send invitations to these people can add another couple hundred letters.

    In the end, we hope to fill the house, that's 500 seats. Ticket prices were set at a level that is moderate in terms of the amount of music presented and the level of performers. Again, we may or may not break even, but a higher ticket price wouldn't necessarily change that. Since I am an unknown composer (at present, hoping the concert will change that to some degree), we couldn't justify a higher price. However, in the same instance, we didn't want to price the concert too low, as we are providing two hours of original classcial music performed by some of the best Edinburgh has to offer.

    If we can fill (or nearly fill) the house and get 10% or more of the "powers that be" from the classical music industry to our concert, we are confident the music will speak for itself. The music will get the right people interested in hearing more, which means opportunities for future money (ie, future events). In the end run, the 'right kind' of audience member is anyone that is interested in the performance, the music and/or the composer! We have no idea at this point whether we are close to selling out or not because advanced ticket sales are not common for one off performances; most people just pay at the door. So, on the night of 4 June, we may be playing to a packed house and a bright future - or we may be performing for a few close friends and then its back to the drawing board for how to do better next time.

    We're still two weeks out.... so if you have any ideas how to get more of the right kind of people to this concert, feel free to comment!

    Tuesday, May 20, 2008

    It Must Be Fate - a synopsis

    Due to the recent requests for some idea as to what the opera It Must Be Fate will be about, I am reposting the synopsis here. This isn't the complete libretto (although that will be available in the programme purchased at the concert) - but this should give you an idea into what to expect - come June 4th.


    It Must Be Fate Synopsis

    Setting: A cave on the side of Mt. Olympus, home to the triple aspect Goddess – Fate.

    The three sister Goddesses of Fate, Clotho, the Virgin, Lachesis, the Mother and Atropos, the Crone sit weaving the tapestry of life. The ever present Greek Chorus voices the lives of the humans that are being woven. The work is repetitive and rhythmical – soothing – but Clotho is restive. She complains of being bored and briefly argues with her sisters before leaving the cave to get some air.

    The Chorus comments that bored and restive children often get themselves in trouble – taking unexpected paths - making choices that parents would not approve of.

    While Clotho is clearing her head, a human man, Jared, climbs the side of Mt Olympus to rail against the Fates for causing his grief. Clotho overhears his lament and is deeply moved. His pain moves her to examine her life and determine to make a change. She will re-enter life on the human level in order to get back in touch with all that has become distant through time. As she is coming to this decision her sisters come to see why she has not returned to the weaving and attempt to dissuade her from her choice, enjoining her to ‘come back to the cave’. Clotho is adamant; she is going! She will head down the mountain and she challenges her sisters to follow. Lachesis and Atropos are worried, but also excited at the possibility of a new life – they decide to join Clotho in the adventure.

    The Fates and the Chorus look toward the uncertain future. What will happen to the Goddesses in a modern world?

    Monday, May 19, 2008

    Figuratively Speaking - programme notes

    The following are the programme notes for the Symphony No 1 to be performed at the concert.

    Figuratively Speaking is an orchestral metaphor

      met-a-phor ( m t-fôr ,-fr) n. one thing conceived as representing another; a symbol Metaphor (from the Greek: μεταφορά - metaphora) is language that directly compares seemingly unrelated subjects. In the simplest case, this takes the form: "The [first subject] is a [second subject]." More generally, a metaphor is a rhetorical trope that describes a first subject as being or equal to a second subject in some way. Thus, the first subject can be economically described because implicit and explicit attributes from the second subject are used to enhance the description of the first.1

    Figuratively speaking is a turn of phrase that means to speak in metaphors.

      1 –The road goes both ways is built on a single “figure”or motif. The piece then “Speaks” the figure in a variety of ways, modifying and manipulating it until it is unrecognizable as the original motif. As metaphors are describing one thing by associating it with another and equating the two, in this piece all the elements are equated and thereby go both ways, associated with each other so in the end they are all part of the same element. It is a journey of an idea; the journey is the heart of this metaphor. The orchestra is the journey and the journey is orchestra.

      2 –Time flies when you’re havin’ fun is just fun. The more fun it is, the faster it gets. Like the first movement, the piece is built on a single melodic idea. This “figure” is longer than in the first movement but still core to all the melodic ideas. During the piece, it is mutating, reversed, inverted, in a fugue and twisted about, yet always returning back to the original idea. As the piece progresses the tempo speeds up. When it’s all over it feels like it should have gone on longer, and perhaps it should. After all, it is a lot of fun.

      3 –You can’t catch rabbits with drumsis a percussion piece, for the entire orchestra. There are two “figures” for this piece although one is a concept and not a collection of notes –the percussion section. The timpani, side drums, bass drum, tom toms and eventually the gong move through different rhythms in a constant stream. Occasionally the other instruments augment this rhythmic progression propelling the piece forward. Amid all this is the “rabbit” motif bouncing about, sometimes quickly, and sometimes rather slow. While the two ideas fit together, they are still always separate, neither caught up with the other.

      4 –Don't tell your secrets to the fence is a slow, dark piece. The figure is the longest motif yet, and built on the baroque idea of melodic line. Each time the figure is repeated it alters slightly, so it eventually becomes unidentifiable from the original motif. Yet, it is possible to see (or hear) the progression from one to the next. There are also elements of the "secret" which stand out as if taunting the motif as it moves through the piece.

      5 -The water is like the sun is simile - where two things are compared. So, as a figure of speech, this movement compares the previous motifs, giving life to them as a collective whole. As the figures meld together, the similarities between them become more obvious as if to say "there are many ways to say the same thing" and yet each way is still unique.

    1 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metaphor (April 2008)

    Skimming Rock and Skipping Stones - programme notes

    The following are the programme notes for the string quartet to be performed at the concert.

    This piece was originally conceived as a tribute to the anthem rock bands of the 1970’s and 80’s - groups like Yes, Kansas, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. Anthem rock has hard driving beats with often intricate melodic lines and layers of sound; all features which influence much of the classical music I write. I did not intend this piece to be a pastiche of my favorite rock songs; it is rather (in a small way) my homage to the musical artistry and inventiveness of these musicians.

    The string quartet has three movements. As word play, use of colloquialisms, and double entendre is common in the naming of songs and albums in the rock world, I indulged in the same practice in naming the movements.

    In terms of geology, there are three types of rock: Igneous, Sedimentary and Metamorphic. Granite is an igneous type, salt is a sedimentary type and slate is a metamorphic type. I then related these types of rock to modern colloquialisms to create the titles for each movement.

      Taken for Granite is a movement with some pyrotechnics for the first Violin voicing the guitar solos and riffs of rock and roll. The use of some techniques like sul ponticello (playing on the bridge), pizzicato and harmonics simulates some the effects that can be achieved with electric instruments. Granite has a number of different colors to it and so does this movement. Created out of the fire of the earth, this piece comes out of the fire of this style of music.

      Salt of the Earth, the “slow” movement, is designed to show some of the sonorous sounds indicative of this style of music. Although it also has a fast section which allows the first Violin show off again. Many of the motifs for this movement are leaked in from the other movements and form the core to the entire piece.

      Clean Slate is a piece which returns to the hard driving sound, but with new motifs – in the end we realize these motifs are just changes from the ones presented in the first two movements. So while the music has changed, it is still rock built with layers of ideas.

    Writing rock music for a quartet is not new. The Turtle Island Quartet has been doing covers and arrangements of a variety of different styles of music from jazz, fusion to rock, blues and folk since their inception in 1985. Several different groups in the US are achieving commercial success by bringing popular styles of music to the classical quartet. Skimming Rock and Skipping Stones is my foray into this genre.

    Interchanging Idioms, what's the point???

    Part of the purpose of this concert is a "coming out" or announcement of my arrival as a composer. As such, it is important that I display a sense of who I am as a composer, define what is my style. Many of the previous posts have discussed my thoughts on what are the elements modern classical music ought have (at least to some extent) and this is certainly the direction I have headed with my compositions.

  • Blending popular music styles into the classical medium

    Both the string quartet Skimming Rock and Skipping Stones and the opera It Must Be Fate incorporate modern "pop" styles. The quartet is heavily influenced by rock of the 70's and 80's while the opera is influenced by urban music. Figuratively Speaking doesn't have as much influence, although the middle movement, You Can't Catch Rabbits with Drums has a strong rhythm throughout which could be related to the strong beats of modern pop music (but that would be a tenuous connection at best).

    The title of the concert, Interchanging Idioms, highlights this particular aspect of my music, blending different musical mediums into something new. It also refers to my love of words and the importance communication plays in both words and music. The titles for the movements of the quartet are Taken for Granite, Salt of the Earth and Clean Slate playing on the colloquialisms and their references to types of rock. It Must Be Fate is another colloquialism and ties in our modern sentiments with those ancient Greek Godesses. All the movements of Figuratively Speaking are colloquialisms. So, in some respect all three pieces of this concert are tied together with words, communication, common phrases and relating these concepts through music.

  • Melodic content

    In all three pieces there is a strong sense of melody, tunes that I hope are memorable. I feel the audience should be able to connect with the music, and take away something that lingers on in their minds. Melodies have been part of our musical being and are cross cultural (although melodies from one culture might sound vastly different from another, all cultures have some sense of melody).

  • Rhythmic interest

    All three pieces are fairly rhythmically intensive. The quartet is probably the least complex in terms of cross rhythms and syncopation, but even it has moments which layers the rhythms against each other. Both the opera and the symphony are fairly complex rhythmically, much to the consternation of the performers. On the page the music doesn't look that difficult, but in performance there is a real challenge to keep the parts in sync.

    There are certainly more elements to my music that just these three. However, these are the primary points I feel classical music (at least for me) needs to incorporate in order to be a viable influence in todays music world.

  • Thursday, May 15, 2008

    Rehearsing the Symphony - First Night thoughts

    The first rehearsal of the Symphony took place last night, whew!

    Some observations:

    • I understand why composer's compositions get better the more they have works performed. There are a number of issues (particularly in the string parts) where my writing is possible to play, but difficult. Many of these sections can be re-written without having a huge effect on the overall sound.
      • Coming off of that previous topic, some of the nuances I have put into the score don't really matter in terms of a fully orchestrated section. When there aren't many instruments playing the subtle shift between a G sounded on the E string and the same G sounded on the A string gives a nice "shimmering" effect. But when the brass section is blaring away, a tremolo on the E string is much the same. Ok, there are probably electro-acoustic purists that will disagree, but I'm not sold on it.
      • Left hand pizzicato isn't really an option for a cello section. I love this technique in quartet writing and have used it with some effectiveness. However, it was apparent last night that the pizzicato should be divisi.
      • A very fast section of 2/4 should be written in cut time. Thirty some bars all beat in one get near impossible to keep track of where we are. Putting the same music into cut time gives the conductor a chance to differentiate between first and second beats so it is a bit easier keeping everyone together.
      • Reminder accidentals are important. I write in keys (for the most part) as my music tends to be pretty tonal. However, my music also tends to be fairly modal, with shifts between modes and keys, which means it can also be fairly chromatic. It's important to put a reminder accidental in a bar where the note is played within the key, rather than the altered one after a bar had an altered note. This sounds pretty standard and to some extent I did this, but not enough, as there were some questions about what notes should be when the reminders were not present.
    • However, on the same instance, a number of things happened last night that were spot on.
      • Phrasing in the wind section really does make a difference. Somewhat like what I mentioned above, when only one instrument (or small group) is doing an effect it doesn't really matter. However, I was fairly pedantic in some of the phrasing the wind section on a particular figure and it changes through a section, initially fairly legato, then paired and finally separated notes. When the entire section is following the same phrasing, the difference is pronounced.
      • Differing dynamics in instruments based on the instrument is also quite noticeable. French horns don't tend to be as loud as trumpets, but are louder than flutes when flutes are in their low register. So, writing the dynamics accordingly to ensure the voicing come out the way I want them worked really well last night, particularly considering this was basically a first read through.
    • I tend to write driving music. There are a number of different styles of music from slushy to shimmering, from laid back to driven. The symphony definitely has a preponderance of driving moments, sections where the orchestra needs to be directly on the beat if not just slightly before it. A lot of this feeling has to do with the syncopated and off beat rhythms I tend to use (much like Leonard Bernstein). This means I'm going to need to spend some of the future rehearsals on getting that feeling of pushing forward rather than relaxing back.
    • Overall, the music holds together better than I expected. As a new composer, I am still in the insecure age of my career when I doubt if I've done something (anything) right. Sure, I have a midi realisation, but those don't really reflect what live musicians actually sound like (not without a great deal of futzing - which I didn't do to the midi realisation). So, as the orchestra played last night, I was pleasantly surprised to actually hear the themes and layers I'd wanted coming out of the orchestra. There are some minor issues (some mentioned above) that will need to be re-worked before a final score is sent to other orchestras - but overall, it's a really good first symphony (if I may say so myself).

    Wednesday, May 14, 2008

    "Four Last Songs" a performance in Edinburgh

    "Four Last Songs" by Richard Strauss was performed by the Edinburgh Symphony and Catriona Clark (pictured) last Saturday. I must admit I was not familiar with the work prior to this concert and pleasantly surprised by the beauty of the music. Although not a fan of Strauss - and not sure this concert necessarily changed that opinion - there were certainly some moments of note, elements I can take on board as a composer.

    The pieces showed a variety of different tonal colors, although occasionally I thought the orchestration was a bit over lush - but that tends to be my impression of Strauss. The dark thematic nature of the work allowed the orchestra to play with some rich harmonies and feature some of the instruments in the low ranges - which was nice. There was also some interesting use of the timpani giving color, accent and shape throughout the piece, otherwise, very little percussion. Catriona's voice matches the music well. Unfortunately, the acoustics of the hall didn't allow her to always come over the orchestra. At some points of the piece the orchestra was playing quietly, yet the reverberation of the hall still kept the accompaniment over-riding the vocalist.

    In my own writing I am ever aware of the vocalist and what the accompaniment is doing. Occasionally their may not be enough beneath the lyrics to give depth to the what the vocalist is singing, but the words should always be at forefront - at least in what I'm writing at the present. There is one point in the opera "It Must Be Fate" where the words become repetitive to the point they are just another instrument in the mix, but that is a rare moment - and only there when the words have already been heard so the creation of sound becomes the tool of communication. In the Strauss, I didn't feel there were sections that were repeated to the point the words became "sound" and so hearing the words needed to be more than just the sound of the vocalisation in the mix of the music.

    It was an enjoyable concert, certainly a time of relaxation in midst of all the other preparations I am going through.

    Tuesday, May 13, 2008

    Finding places to rehearse

    image is from Made

    This is a constant struggle - particularly for composers who depend on other organisations for musician. I'd like to say, fortunately in Edinburgh there are a number of churches that have been turned into community centres, but I'm not sure what that says about the state of religious attendance here. Regardless, many of these old churches (and still functioning ones) allow their halls to be used for orchestral rehearsals. The one Edinburgh Symphony Orchestra uses is a nice "gymnasium" setup. The acoustics aren't the best, but there is ample space for the orchestra and good lighting.

    With the opera, the leads are rehearsing at my house. I am fortunate to live in a flat with a large lounge (living room) - but then again, we had to have a place for the baby grand piano so we were rather forced to find something with some space. Again, the acoustics are the greatest, but for the intimate work with the leads it is just right. The chorus is rehearsing at a local college and the "orchestra" (read: pianist) is working out on his own. I'll pull them all together a week before out at the college (which is the only place where there is enough space for everyone) - but until then, rehearsals are scattered.

    The Edinburgh Quartet are working on their own. We'll get together the last week to answer any questions they have or to make adjustments to how things are played in terms of what I was looking for - however, experience tells me this is likely to minimal if not non-existent. Prior to these I've worked with them in "workshop" situations, where they have the music and sit and "rehearse" the piece with me and several other composers sitting about "learning" about the process a quartet goes through when working a piece. It's a good way for composers to learn how to write for a quartet to translate what they want from the music onto the page that the musicians can understand. I feel blessed to have not needed to make many corrections/adjustments in the past. There seems to be a good line of communication between me and the quartet - which is a large reason why I'm thrilled to have them as part of the concert.


    But all this is just for the upcoming concert. What of the future?

    Well, I hope to attend Yale in their Masters program, 2009-2010. If that's the case, I'll be working with resources from the university, but also from the area. A new rehearsal space looks to be opening up in New York - and that's GREAT news! The Orchestra of St Luke's is hoping to purchase space to use for rehearsals and allow the other organisations in the area access.

    - I'm not sure if there's another concert in the works after June and before heading off to Yale (pending acceptance) - but if so, I'm thankful I'm here in Edinburgh.

    Monday, May 12, 2008

    What makes a performance professional or amateur?

    From a concert by Edinburgh University

    If a performance is being performed by students does that make it a student performance, or is it only a student performance if the performance is being organised by students - ie, if a performance is being organised by a school or university is the performance than a school performance, rather than a student performance? If the school or university is hiring a professional group to perform is the performance a school performance or a professional performance? And what of amateurs - if some of the people performing are students does this make it a student performance or an amateur performance?

    In Edinburgh there are a number of "Amateur" groups that put on productions every year. Last Saturday, the Edinburgh Symphony Orchestra performed a collection of Strauss works along with a piece by Stravinsky. Joining the orchestra was a professional vocalist, and although the concert was not as pristine as you might find with the London Symphony or the Berlin Philharmonic, it was reasonably well done. The conductor, Gerald Doherty is certainly a professional level conductor, but the orchestra is a "subscription based" organisation, which is to say, the players pay a small fee to participate and the money that is earned from performances goes to keeping the organisation going - not to salaries. This week The Meadows Chamber Orchestra is performing. By those in the know, the MSO are a step up from Edinburgh Symphony in terms of quality yet, the basis of the orchestra is the same. So, when these groups perform are they amateur performances?

    The Edinburgh Quartet is the only full-time professional level quartet in Scotland. They perform a series of concerts throughout the year. Some of these concerts are hosted by the universities in Edinburgh, with the quartet performing student works. So, are these concerts professional concerts because the Edinburgh Quartet is playing, or are they School performances, because they are organised by universities? Or should they be classified as student performance because the compositions are student written?

    What if the organiser is a professional, but the groups they are presenting are not? For example, the Venezuelan Youth Orchestra just finished a world tour and their concerts were amazing. These were all student performers, but those organising the event were definitely professionals. The halls for the performances were the best in the area, the ticket prices set a high expectation for the audience and the resulting performance exceeded the expectation. Where does this fit in the classification of a classical concert?

    Advertising, does that make a difference? If someone pays for a full page ad in the newspaper, or magazine, does that qualify them as being professional? Of course not - anyone can take out an ad. Although a quality ad can give the impression of a quality performance, and most professional organisations put a fair amount of money into making sure their media coverage is "glossy", just having a glossy poster does not make for a professional performance. However, if a magazine that only lists major events (i.e. professional ones) decides to list your event does that make it professional? Well, it certainly means someone thinks it is.

    I am preparing a concert of some of my works. Edinburgh Quartet is premiering a new quartet of mine at this concert and I'd consider that to put it in the realm of Professional. However, Edinburgh Symphony Orchestra is an amateur orchestra, one of the best in the area, but they're still amateur. So, maybe that lowers the level to Amateur. I am preparing to graduate from Napier University, so (for all intents and purposes) I am a student - does that make this a Student Production? Some of the people performing are also from Napier, but this is not an event organised by Napier, so I don't think it qualifies as a School or University event.

    I am a student, but I am also 45 years old, with numerous performances/concerts and works presented publicly prior to returning to university. While promoting an event is not my occupation, I would hardly classify myself as a novice or a student in this regard. Amateur might fit, yet I have enlisted the help of a professional photographer, publicist, graphic artist and hall staff to try and elevate the concert above the normal "amateur" level (yes, I have a glossy poster). The City of Edinburgh's media department considers this a serious production (as it's a premier of a symphony, which is rare - and may well be the first for Edinburgh), so they are treating it as a professional, or at least semi-professional production. I have several corporate sponsors, but I am unavailable for grants as most of the funding organisations have a prohibition against funding "student" projects (I am still technically a student). At least one major (read national) magazine is listing the concert so (IMHO) that also bumps up the level.

    So, is the performance coming in June a Student production, an Amateur production or a Professional one? (I'm not including school because there is no one, other than myself, from the university assisting with the mounting of this production and we are using no university resources). I would like to think of it as Semi-professional - not yet professional, but moving in that direction. The goal is for people who commission new works to consider me an option - which would put me in the professional category.

    In the end, what am I really on about? Specifically, the misperception of concert goers. There are those that know me, but not as a student and who are not familiar with "student" concerts that are cheering me on, beyond excited about the upcoming event. There are others, who know me as a student who seem to think this is just another student event and not sure why I am spending so much time on it. Other people I have run into garner their impression based on who is performing or where the performance is held or their own limited knowledge of who's who in the classical world (ie, if it's not the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, they really won't consider it). Many people hear the word student and run screaming in the opposite direction as if that word encapsulated the quality of the concert/music.

    It seems to be an uphill battle to get any sort of consideration by those who like to have preconceptions as to quality of the upcoming concert. And perhaps it's a hill I don't need to climb. While I would like for some of them to attend, in the attempt at changing their mind, none of these people are people who are ultimately going to lead to commissions or future work - so.... keep your eye on the prize... I am going to try and focus on making this the best concert possible and get the people there who are open to the idea of a new composer, a student, a middle-aged man with experience, and a new voice in classical music!

    Friday, May 9, 2008

    Whirlwind adventure in the Wonderland of Classical Music

    Much of this blog has been dedicated to the quest to define what is new classical music - not that it is an obtainable goal, as music is, and should be, ever changing. This goal is rather like Alice's trip into Wonderland, every turn seems to open completely new unimaginable worlds that don't seem to make sense with what's gone on before. I've talked about composers incorporating jazz and pop (or folk) into their compositions, about the use of new instruments and sounds and about the audience's reaction to new pieces - as I feel the audience is an integral part of music (in firm disagreement with Milton Babbitt). Through all of this exploration I have tried to make sense (for myself) as to what kind of music I should be writing - all the while falling farther and farther down the rabbit hole.

    What is new Classical Music? Do I need to embrace the atonal world of serialism, the brain intensity dementions of new complexity or meander through the sonic-scapes of musique accousmatique? Isn't there a potion that will make it all normal again?

    Then I came across this (actually, my wife found the article and pointed me toward it). It seems that in 1976, David Del Tredici premiered a piece, "Final Alice." David was (at the time) a proud, prominant member of the avant-gard composers, and yet, "Final Alice" is a blantantly Neo-romantic piece. The piece broke away from the twelve tone serialism and freed future composers to express themselves in new ways, using old tools.

    "Final Alice" is a bizarre mix and yet very tonal. "In Memory of a Summer Day" is tonal as well, and yet garnered David a Pulitzer Prize. Even his latest work "Paul Revere's Ride" is tonal with a fugue and a choral. While it has elements that make it a very new work, there are also elements of it that could easily have been written by Benjamin Brittan 50 years ago (echos of Peter Grimes).

    As I embark on my own career, presenting a new opera piece in June, I don't want to be Neo-classical, slushy or overly romantic in my music - but I have to admit I am pretty firmly rooted in the tonal world. Yet, I want to say something new - and yet, still feel a strong pull from the tonal world. I am beginning to open doors from rock legends (see previous post), embrace the decorative style of urban artists and lounge in the easy chair of jazz greats. This style may not be wholly new, but rather a collaboration of many elements of my past, as if looking into the glass and seeing myself in a new light. So, I guess I owe a Thanks to David Del Tredici for changing the worlds impression of what Classical Music must be, to what it can be.

    Bringing Classical Music into a Modern Age

    That's what I'm talking about... incorporating all different styles of music (including pop, rock and jazz) into classical music. An article in the Boston Globe speaks of the Quartet San Francisco and the Boston String Quartet including improvisation into their concerts as well as doing covers from U2 and Metallica. Cool! The article goes on to talk about California's Turtle Island Quartet which is credited with starting the trend.

    In the concert on 4 June, the Edinburgh Quartet will be premiering my newest quartet - and it incorporates a number of these elements in the composition. While it is not a cover of any specific song, much of the motivation and inspiration for this piece comes from bands like Yes, Kansas, Styx, and Pink Floyd. They were (IMHO) some of the great bands from the Anthem Rock era and great composers. While I was studying their music (yes, I actually did spend time analyzing how they did what they did to make their sound) I realised many of their techniques were the same techniques the classical composers used; they were just augmented by electronic effects and played on a whole new set of instruments -but the complexity and ingenuity was all there.

    So, why not reverse the process - write music with all the hooks and sequences we'd expect in "rock" song and allow a string quartet to play them? That's what I've done. On June 4th we'll get to see Tristan "rock out" with some incredible solos - if his fingers don't spontaneously combust!!!

    Thursday, May 8, 2008

    Fresh Talent

    It's really nice working with fresh talent (I suppose I might fall into that category...). We had rehearsal with the leads for "It Must Be Fate" yesterday and the trio of female voices filling the roles of Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos (the three fates) are a real joy.

    Jayne Craig, Nicola Said and Clare Brady were all eager to get their parts right, focused throughout the rehearsal and really motivated. Their enthusiasm meant when we rehearsed a part, they took ownership of it; they really tried to put their best into what they were singing. So, as a composer, I could hear what it potentially was going to sound like - and in some respects justified what I'd written (it sounded really good - which, as a composer, is always the hope, but not always the reality).

    Yesterday, it was only previous commitments that kept us from continuing - and a good thing, because as I left rehearsal I realised just how exhausted I was, but a good kind of exhaustion, euphoric and yet completely worn out. Thank heaven the ladies had other obligations.

    Too often established talent comes in with an air of "been there, done that (yawn)" that getting solid work is near impossible. Granted, they always come through come performance time, which is part of the reason established talents have the reputation they have.

    As a composer, getting the feeling like some one is really putting their best efforts into the performance is a difficult place to be. Maybe I'm just not experienced enough yet to know what I've written is going to sound like and can just ignore half-hearted rehearsals. Still, give me talent that wants to do well from the outset and I believe the end result will be better too.

    I'm not sure when the attitude changes, but (in my experience) there is definitely a line between those that have been for a while, and those that are get to be (but will someday).

    Wednesday, May 7, 2008

    Classical Music, what is it to be a classic

    There's an interesting article on minyanville.com which talks about a classical music program for children developed by Michelle Snyder. That in and of itself isn't so fascinating. However, what I did find interesting about it were the comments about the pieces that affected Snyder's life.. She speaks of seeing The Nutcracker as a child of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, Bach, Chopin, Debussy... the list goes on.

    Certainly, these are all composers (and their music) that are firmly entrenched into the Classical Music World. A while back (March) the Classical FM radio station in the UK published their top 300 pieces, and surprisingly, many of these same pieces were listed. Classical FM gets raked over the coals for being too "candy coated" in their choice of classical music - and yet... these are the pieces the bulk of society requests to hear. Maybe that's because we're the most familiar with them. Maybe it's because they are great pieces of music (maybe a bit of both).

    There are other great pieces of music out there - but it's this return to these few (if 300 can be considered a few) that we seem to gravitate toward - and really - the vast difference between much of the classical music written today verses these "classics."

    Why, if these pieces are so good, do we feel the need to write music that so very different? (particularly in terms of tonality and melody)

    Part of the answer is to find something new. Beethoven was pushing the bounds of the Classical world (into the Romanic Era) with the music he wrote - particularly his middle period - which is where his Fifth Symphony falls. Debussy was writing something new when he developed his style. Bach may not have been writing in a "new" style (his contemporaries didn't seem to think so), but he was a master at it. Some say the same about Mozart; he didn't necessarily write outside the classical music style, but he wrote it better than any of his peers. And if these masters have already written the best of that style, why attempt to write something which will undoutably be considered less - why flog a dead horse?

    Part of the answer is similar to a dog walking past a post or a bush. "Hmmm, smells like another dog has been here. I'd better put my scent on this poll to let other dog's know - It's Mine!"

    I was reading an article the other day (sorry, tried to find it again, but lost the link) about a rap artist who was calling his music something other than Urban, giving it a unique name to say, "See, I pissed on this post. It's mine and nobody else's." What a joke! Sorry, but just because he calls his music some new style, doesn't mean it is - and it (IMHO) loses it's connections with the past so (again, IMHO) it actually is less because it doesn't share that connection that gives it validation.

    Ok, perhaps I'm talking myself into a hole. I am a composer and I am trying to write something new. I would love to be one day have one of my pieces (one would be amazing, two or three would be, well, greedy - but I'm willing to be greedy too, if the opportunity arises) considered part of the standard pieces - one of the 300, something children should listen to as they grow up. But to do that I feel I need to write something that is connected in someway with these masters who gone before me. Write something that is new, but not so different from the "classics" so my audience can readily hear the connection.

    I think there is a lot of amazing music written in the last 50 years and some of it may ever make it into the "standard" range of classical music. Some of it, while being extremely interesting, is just too far out there (IMHO) to ever be mainstream - and for some composers, that's fine.

    However, for me, perhaps I'll end up being considered more "neo-romantic", more soft around the edge. But then again, Ralph Vaughn-Williams has been criticised in the same way and he has several pieces that are in the list of "classics". There must be something about that style of music that still resonates with people - and, if nothing else, I want my music to resonate with others.

    Tuesday, May 6, 2008

    Avant-garde America

    In the NY Times review "Four Decades of Music the redefined Free" there are numerous references to the blending or infusion of jazz into "new" music. Again, the sentiment that jazz, one of the great musical gifts the US has given the world, is making an impact.

    Maybe the key to America is it is "the land of the free" and this attitude has embedded into every aspect of our thinking - to the point that when we think about music it is free(r) to associate and incorporate various styles to create something new. This isn't to say what is happening at IRCOM or Darmstadt isn't new or creative - just in a vastly different direction. And maybe what I'm resonating with are my American roots.

    ...because this incorporation of jazz into something still resembling something melodic is more in tune with my own tastes.

    Male/Female brain types

    This isn't really concert or music related - but - I would be curious as to what other composers find their brain types to be...

    I took the test on the BBC website and not at all surprised at what my results were....

    My Overall Performance

    The scale below is an indication of where you fall in the male-female brain continuum. The results are based on the angles, spot the difference, 3D shapes and words tasks.

    Bear in mind that your performance may be affected by many factors in addition to gender, like age and intelligence.

    Your personal brain score:


    Average score for MEN who've taken this survey:


    Average score for WOMEN who've taken this survey:


    Monday, May 5, 2008

    Where to hold a premier?

    When and where do you premier a symphony, particularly if this is a first symphony? James MacMillan recently gave the UK Premier of his 3rd Symphony in Glasgow, but he's based on the West Coast of Scotland and Glasgow is a big town. The World Premier was done in Japan. From what I can tell John Corigliano Premiered his 1st Symphony with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra - but that could just be the World Premier Recording of it. His Symphony No 2 was done in 2001 by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, but they commissioned it.

    There are 23 on the Wikipedia list of composers who have composed a symphony since 1953. Oddly enough neither of the above are in that list. Of the many remarkable names on the list (and many others I'd not heard of before) Jay Greenberg seems to stand out. Born in 1991, he has composed 5 symphonies. Most of the rest of the composers have written only one or two (but I can hardly say anything as I've just finished my first).

    While putting out posters for the concert someone queried whether someone has every premiered a symphony in Edinburgh - and truthfully, I haven't been able to find any information about it. So... this could be a first for Edinburgh and not just for me.

    Friday, May 2, 2008

    The Rhythm is Gonna Get You

    An Exploration into rhythm in the music of Chip Michael Clark

    Note: Scores discussed in this article will be posted soon

    When I first began thinking about my music back in September 2007, I felt what I wanted to write about was what made my music unique, the quality that people describe as having a "Chip-ness" about it. Many of the composers I admire have a recognizable personality to their music. Dmitry Shostakovich has a Russian strength to his music (even though he was in and out of popularity with the Soviet Union throughout his life), his music embodies the aspirations of the people of his time. Aaron Copland is often described as the Dean of American composers. His blend of American folk tunes and modern music became known as the American Sound. Leonard Bernstein's use of cultural iconic themes and warring rhythms typify the social clash of the mid to late 20th century.

    These composers are all influences in my writing, but not the only ones. I grew up in the midst of the disco era, and began playing the trombone at the age of seven. This exposed me to a variety of different styles of music, from the Latin sounds of Gloria Estafan and the Miami Sound Machine, to the rhythmic jazz of Dave Brubeck. I played in concert band, jazz band and orchestra - everything from standard classical repertoire through arrangements of the Beatles. Taking influences from popular music styles is hardly unique. Michael Finnissy uses influences of jazz and Negro spirituals in his work. Philip Glass speaks about influences of rock on his brand of "music with repetitive structures." Bartók used influences of Hungarian, Slovakian, Romanian and Bulgarian folk music; these are the forms of music he grew up with. It is no surprise that some of my own influences are found in the music I listened to and played as a child.

    So, what is it that makes my music mine? Probably the most notable feature is the rhythm. I love rhythm, and as Gloria Estafan says in her song of the same title "The Rhythm is gonna get you," it certainly got me, so much so it permeates my music at every level. The Latin influence in this music really gets my heart going; the intricate rhythms reverberate with something deep inside me. This love of rhythm is reflected in my music. I enjoy changing time signature or playing with the pulse of the music while still maintaining a sense of rhythm, something I think is core to music. Offbeat rhythms, upbeats and syncopation are other aspects that appear in everything I write, whether it is in a jazz or a classical piece. Ultimately I layer these elements to integrate the use of rhythm even further. There are probably a lot more aspects of my music that also give it a sense of being mine, like the lush orchestration in my symphony similar to that use by Shostakovich or the use of switching between melodic and motivic ideas as is found in much of Copland's music, or the intricate chromaticism and shifting modality found in Bernstein's music. But this paper is not an exhaustive examination of my music, rather a glimpse into what makes it work. And the rhythm works.

    Time Signatures - their use and abuse

    For the third movement of my Symphony No 1, Figuratively Speaking - You Can't Catch Rabbits with Drums (or Rabbits as I like to refer to it), rhythm is at the heart of the piece. The percussion section plays continuously for the full seven minutes. Their rhythmic structure, discussed later, is originally written in cut-time. The time signature doesn't change until just before rehearsal mark F (bar 98) for one bar and then moves to Common time. So, ostensibly no real shift at all, save the loss of one beat. The next change is at rehearsal mark J (bar153). This may not seem like much of a shift. However, the rhythm of the original motive (figure 1), is augmented at rehearsal mark I (bar 135) (figure 2), and again at rehearsal mark J (figure 3), this last one pulling the motive out of the rhythm of the time signature of 4/4.




    Up to this point the audience has been lulled into the security of an even pulse, but five minutes into the piece the pulse shifts and continues to do so throughout the golden section of the music. At bar 165 the time signature shifts to 5/4, at 167 it shifts to 4/4, at bar 177 it is back to 5/4 for one bar and then begins a shift between 4/4 and 4/3 for until bar 198 when it moves back to 4/4 where it remains until the end. The effect of this shifting metre is to structure the piece into basically an A - B - A1 form, with the A sections being in Common time. The first A section is five minutes, the B section is a minute and a half and the final A1 section is only 40 seconds.

    In Copland's Appalachian Spring, the primary portion of the piece is in Common time, however this is augmented with elements of 3/2, 5/4, 3/4 and 7/8, used to shift from one section to the next or to create an unstable section, similar to what I did in the B section of Rabbits.

    Time signatures play a large role in the opera "It Must Be Fate" as I wanted to keep a continuous pulse moving throughout the piece, yet shifting it from one stress to another. Shostakovich has several sections in the first movement of his Symphony No 7 where the time signature is anything but static. The piece opens in Common Time, but just after rehearsal mark 2 the next six bars shift between 5/4 and 4/4, then the metre shifts to 3/2, to 3/4 and eventually back to another extended section of 4/4. At rehearsal mark 8 another section of unstable time signatures occurs. These shifts between sections of stability and non-stability build tension throughout the movement. In my opera I use shifting time signatures to create just such a sense of tension.

    The opening portion of the piece is in 4/4, but then shifts to 7/4 with the "Weaving Song" giving the piece a sense of hesitation similar to the movement of a shuttle across a loom. At bar 72 the time signature shifts to 6/4 which is maintained for the bulk of the piece. There is a short 5/4 section used only to shift back to 7/4 and a return of the movement from the opening portion of this song, but then back to 6/4 to end the song.

    When the piece moves into the next section "I'm Bored" the tempo shifts from crotchet equals 160 to dotted crotchet equals 107 as the time signature shifts from 6/4 to 6/8. The pulse in the last portion of the 6/4 section was actually in 4 or 4 dotted crotchets (which is roughly 107). So, the time signature has shifted to 2 beats in a bar from the simulated 4 beats in the bar, although the previous time signature was 6/4 - which had originally been stressed with 6 beats to the bar. In the midst of "I'm Bored" another shift happens taking the music from 6/8 to 4/4 so we lose the triplet feel for a regular 4 beat.

    Another shift in the time signatures and pulse happens at "Ascending Mt Olympus" (bar 399), where we move from a slowed 4/4 at crotchet equals 100 to 5/8 where a quaver equals 250. The point of this shift is to give the feeling the 5/8 bar is equivalent to 2 counts of the 4/4 bar. But because the 5/8 bar doesn't divide evenly the feeling of being out of sync is inherent in the music. By the time we reach "Jarad's Lament" at bar 413 we are lulled into a sense of the unevenness, so when the next shift happens at bar 490 to 3/4 we hardly feel the added quaver. However, at bar 508 the time signature shifts to 4/4 and we do feel that change, just as Jarad sings of the changes Fate makes.

    In "Come Back to the Cave" the shift in time signature is far more dramatic, but we are coming to the close of the opera. In this section of the opera the time signatures shift from 4/4 to 3/4 and back again. The point of this shift is to create a sense of the sisters of Fate being out of balance. They are not in agreement, so the rhythm is constantly losing a beat, propelling the piece forward.

    But just shifting the time signature isn't always necessary. Dave Brubeck wrote a number of great jazz tunes, but my all time favorite is Take Five. Its irregular time, 5/4, allows the music to have a very unique feel, constantly keeping the listener moving with the beat. This piece, probably more than any other, keeps me coming back to irregular time signatures - although I find I tend to gravitate toward seven rather than five.

    Shifting the Pulse - but keeping the beat

    However, it isn't always necessary to change the time signature to shift the pulse. In my piece Weighting the Return, I use an irregular rhythm to keep the piece off balance. The time signature is 4/4 but the Violin II starts with a nine quaver figure at bar 5 (figure 4). This irregular rhythm is eventually shifted to a seven quaver figure, then a five quaver figure and then the length is broken and of indeterminate length adding to the instability of the pulse. Igor Stravinsky used similar irregular rhythms in his trois pieces pour quatuor a cordes (1914). Bernstein used the technique of broken rhythms in The Rumble segment of his West Side Story (1957) to build a sense of uncertainly to what was about to happen in the music. Philip Glass uses repetitive irregular rhythms layered on each other to shift the pulse as found in his string orchestra piece, Company (1983).

    Similar irregular rhythms are layered on top of each other in Rabbits. The timpani starts a 13 beat rhythm, mostly crotchets, with 2 quavers added to shift the pulse of the timpani at different portions of the rhythm. The bass drum plays a 5 beat rhythm of 2 minims and a crotchet. The snare drum has an 8 beat rhythm made up of crotchets, quavers and semi-quavers, with occasional accented notes (figure 5). The bass drum is replaced with another snare drum at bar 61, changing yet again the sense of irregular rhythms. All of this takes place without shifting the time signature.

    The purpose of shifting time signatures in "Come Back to the Cave" is to create a difference between the statements of one character and the responses of another. This is augmented by the change in the rhythmic style of the characters. At bar 803 the older sisters say "Please don't go down" basically in crotchets, but Chlotho (centre line) responds with quavers (figure 6). Earlier in the same piece (bar 757) the roles were reversed, with Chlotho singing the crotchet figure and the sisters responding with quavers.

    In the music of "America" Bernstein shifts between vocals with the women singing a section then shifting to the men to "comment" on their women's statement. They then shift roles with the women commenting on the men's statements. Bernstein had a collaborator of Steven Sondheim, who used the same technique in his opera Sweeney Todd: Demon Barber of Fleet Street to shift between the statement and comment of characters. Neither of these composers use the rhythmic difference or time signature shifting to the extent I have, but the concept of the voice interplay is the same.

    Syncopation - keeping the music upbeat

    Many of the shifting rhythms in my music occur in the form of syncopation, a stress on an unstressed beat, or a missing beat where a stressed one would normally be expected. Throughout Rabbits there are accents which fall on offbeat stresses. This occurs in the motive (see figure 1) and an accompaniment rhythm which eventually becomes a primary rhythm in the strings (figure 7).

    Copland makes the common time of his Appalachian Spring more interesting by adding syncopated rhythms at rehearsal mark 46 (figure 8).


    Latin music is inherently syncopated, with lots of up beat stresses. Much of West Side Story is filled with Latin rhythms because of the Puerto Rican subject matter. "Mambo" takes one of these rhythms to the extreme (figure 9). The mambo rhythm is of Cuban origin and the typical beat is the first beat of 8 and then the consecutive off beats to finish the 8 counts (figure 10). As you can see with figure 8, Bernstein doesn't have the same stresses - Bernstein's version is even more syncopated - and yet it still has the same flavor.




    Weighting the Return doesn't include a lot of continuous syncopation, but still, it's there in small doses. At the beginning of the piece, just before rehearsal mark B, again before rehearsal mark C, before rehearsal mark D and so on. Figure 11 is from the section just before rehearsal mark B.

    Layering - it on thick


    In Weighting the Return at rehearsal mark E, the piece has progressed to the point to start bringing the elements together. So, the cello has a series of pizzicato quavers every beat and a half. What previously was the irregular rhythm becomes a broken rhythm in the Viola, with lots of upbeat stresses. When the Violin I enters at bar 127, its melody is loosely based on seven quaver segments, so it doesn't fit nicely into a 4/4 bar, but keeps jumping ahead just slightly. Eventually, at bar 142, the three lower strings are moving mono-rhythmically although entirely on the offbeat, and it isn't until the last bar of this section that all four instruments play together.

    The opera has numerous moments where rhythms are layered on top of each other. From the very beginning the piano sets the syncopated rhythm up in the first bar in the left hand. When the right hand enters at bar 9, the upbeat of two is stressed with both hands, but only the left hand stresses beat four. At bar 17 the syncopation gets more elaborate as the left hand has a two bar repeating figure, while the right hand has one line that follows the stresses in the left hand, but a separate line that has different stresses. All of these elements are found in pieces throughout the opera, as this first page encapsulates the rhythmic play the audience will be exposed to during the performance, setting the expectation from the outset.

    There are basically three rhythmic elements to Rabbits, the motive as shown in figure 1, the drums and their irregular rhythmic interplay as shown in figure 4 and a syncopated series of semi-quavers as shown in figure 6. As the piece reaches the climax at rehearsal mark K, six and a half minutes into the piece, all three elements are present, with the motive mutated to an irregular rhythmic length of seven quavers so it is out of sync with the rest of the piece. The beginning of the B section, as mentioned on page 4, starts this integration of the layers first playing the mutated motive over top the drums irregular rhythmic interplay. Eventually, the syncopated series of notes come in, but initially not as semi-quavers but as dotted crotchets creating a melody over top of the other two layers. The length of the note durations for the melody eventually decreases to crotchets, then crotchet triplets, then quavers and to semi-quavers. As it decreases the tension of the warring rhythms continue to build. This piece doesn't use harmonic tension to create the conflict, but rather uses rhythmic tension to propel the piece forward until release at the final bar.


    Rhythm is only one aspect of my music. Other aspects include the use of harmonies and modal movement within the piece, which I adore. Voicing and orchestration are aspects I spend hours crafting into my music. And word setting is something I feel is very important to get across not only the meaning of the words, but the meaning behind the words. The composers mentioned are only a few of the many composers whose work influences my own. Other composers I often refer to when writing include Holst and Debussy for use of harmonic color; Ravel and Stravinsky for superior orchestration techniques; and Brittan and Weir, who's use of language is among the best in the 20th century, have affected the way I approach setting music to words.

    The list of influence continues as does the elements I could speak of, however, an aspect I have learned here at Napier is the importance in crafting a piece to the specific need. If a commission requires a 5 minute piece, writing something that is 10 minutes long does not meet the requirements. So, I chose to limit the discussion of my music to rhythm to be able to cover in depth that single aspect, yet still explore the various facets of rhythm - the shifting of time signatures, the utilizing of irregular rhythms and syncopation and the layers of these elements which further develops the rhythmic language inherent in my music.

    Shostakovich, Copland and Bernstein were chosen for their very different styles and yet clear examples as to how their own music has influenced mine. Even with that, there is so much more about even just these composers I could speak of, their use of tonal color, melodic development and broad choice of styles in which they write. Again, there is not enough time in the limited scope of this paper to discuss all the elements. Hopefully, by exploring rhythm in depth, you have gained a better understanding of what makes my music tick, what makes me resonate with other composers and how I approach new compositions. For at least one aspect has my number, rhythm.

    Volkoff, Solomon, Testimony, the Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich, Faber & Faber, trans. Antonia Bouis (1979) (back)
    Scherer, Barrymore Laurence, A History of American Classical Music, Naxos Books (2007), p112 (back)
    idib, p169 (back)
    Beirens, Maarten , ARCHAEOLOGY OF THE SELF: MICHAEL FINNISSY'S 'FOLKLORE', Tempo (2003), 57: 46-56 Cambridge University Press (2003) (back)
    Glass, Philip, Music by Philip Glass, Da Capo Press (1987), (back)
    Copland, Aaron, Appalachian Spring, Boosey & Hawkes (1945), p56 (back)
    Bernstein, Leonard, West Side Story, Boosey & Hawkes (1994), p42 (back)