. Interchanging Idioms: July 2008

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Blending Pop and Classical Music

I see a trend emerging.... the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is going to perform a symphony based on 12 Greatful Dead tunes, a piece called the Dead Symphony by Lee Johnson. The St Louis Symphony Orchestra will be performing several concerts of movie music (ok, that's not so new), but they're sponsoring a concert of Glenn Branca’s symphony written for 100 electric guitars.

Classical music isn't dead - it's just beginning to absorb some of qualities of more popular genre's - and will (IMHO) create something even more wonderful in years to come.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Scene Length and how it affects the music

The length of scene has dramatically shortened over the years, particularly in terms of opening/introductory scenes. Film makers are shifting from long, drawn-out shots to rapid changes; some of these coming in different camera angles, but some are completely new scenes. In our reviewing popular television programs and their opening episodes it is common to have scenes with only 3 or 4 lines and then on to the next character. Compare this to films and TV shows even 20 years ago and you'll find the current trend is for short and sweet dialog.

But short and sweet can dramatically affect the flow of music. When the scene shifts from one to another the music needs to follow, giving each scene its own character - and yet tying the scenes together, having themes that flow across scenes and elements that bind the entire piece into a cohesive whole. One approach is to use leitmotif's to establish characters, which allows the music to quickly bounce from one leitmotif to another. There was also an initial desire to "weave" the melodies together - as the primary characters are the weavers of fate. As such, any use of leitmotif's would need to be developed with concern for how these motif's can interplay with each other. I think it's also important to give some leitmotif's characteristics of other leitmotif's to musically highlight relationships early on.

We've been in discussion with a set designer we know, someone who works in Hollywood but is also familiar with the demands of stage. It is interesting to get his feedback on how stage has begun to migrate more and more toward filmic flow. We hope "It Must Be Fate" goes even further in this direction.

While we aren't going to specifically set the libretto and music with set design work, we do want to be careful not to write something that is impossible to stage, something so filmic as to be impossible to present on stage. That said, there are certainly numerous posts on this blog about other operas that have taken film stories and translated them to stage, so I suppose - nothing's impossible.

Creating short music scenes that still tie together is proving to be challanging.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Fate of Contemporary Classical Music

There is a lot of discussion on the internet about the demise of Contemporary Classical Music. Eddie Silva talks of the Death of the Death of Classical Music to say it's been pronounced dead so many times we need to move on - and yet, Classical Music isn't something that really ever dies, but just looks to be re-born or re-invested into something new. Anzu says much the same thing (only much shorter - with references to sex, albeit a tenuous connection). Alex Fong attributes the death of Classical Music to the stuffy critics and patrons who feel "classical music is an art to be appreciated like fine wine, with a discerning palette to augur through its complexities."

While all of these are interesting reads, Stefan Kac, on his blog "My Fickle Ears Dig It", gives a fascinating insight into three reasons why he thinks CCM is dying. While I agree with his first and third arguments on Attempting To Use Analysis To Synthesize Experience and Appealing to Novelty in Place of Substance, I don't agree with his middle argument - Arbitrarily Imposing a Narrative on a Piece of Abstract Instrumental Music. His post is in response to Benjamin Zander's lecture at the TED conference.

Perhaps Benjamin Zander is one of those people Alex Fong is talking about; someone who feels CCM is elite and therefore requires more from its audience than "normal" music, although the quest for composers to create something new or novel has resulted in some very unmemorable music. Schoenberg feels music needs to be memorable in order to be likeable and yet so much of CCM is anything but memorable - different yes, but often lacks a quality that our brains can absorb without in-depth analysis. If the music needs analysis to be enjoyed, then there is something wrong with it.

In terms of use of narrative, I find that it can be useful, although not always necessary. Beethoven's 6th Symphony is Pastoral, and with that in mind, the piece easily calls to mind feelings (or scenes) of that sort - so, while not specifically a narrative for the symphony, the association does enhance the listening experience. Yet, Mozart's Eine Kleine Nacht Musik needs no narrative. Perhaps it could be said Beethoven's 6th Symphony doesn't need one either, but the narrative does (IMHO) enhance it.

I don't feel all music needs a narrative, nor should all music have it. However, that said, it can help in some instances.

Is CCM dying? No. I agree with Eddie Silva in that it just needs to be re-invented by composers who are looking for something new - that is memorable - that speaks to the audience with our without additional narrative and, while it may be interesting if analysed, it can be enjoyed simply by listening to it.

If you'd like to listen to some of my attempts at CCM, click here.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Getting beyond the comparison

When studying music (or any art), a part of the process is to study the music of other greats. This is a necessary part of learning as past masters can show us how good music is done (at least in their style of music). The danger is this study can frustrate the novice composer into thinking they can never compete with the masters. Kenneth LaFave wrote an excellent post on his blog - "How to Fail" which prompted my own post.

Composing music, like painting, is comprised of combining a series of elements together to create pleasing (or not so pleasing) sounds. These elements are really nothing more than techniques. By learning the techniques of Mozart or Hayden it becomes possible to write music like them. This is called pastiche.

The point of pastiche writing is to learn the techniques of other composers. Learn enough different techniques and you start to create your own unique blend of them. By learning what's been done, you have a better idea as to where you can go. If we didn't study the previous greats and their techniques, we'd have no idea if what we're writing is new and unique or just something that already been done.

A car manufacturer doesn't start from scratch every time they want to design a new car. They take what they already know from previous designs and try to improve on them. Composing music is the same way - taking what we learn from past masters and seeing if we can meld the various pieces, changing what's been done into something new.

While you may not write as well as the past masters in the style of the past masters - you have an advantage. You can learn from their music and lots of other master composers as well. Hayden taught Beethoven. Beethoven influenced Berlioz. Ravel studied Berlio and so on. You can study all of these composers as well as Reich, Adams, Ferneyhough, Glass....

- Things I marvel at from previous composers (by no means complete):

  • Bach: Master at counterpoint
  • Mozart: Subtle use of middle line movement
  • Beethoven: Development of the motive in every level of the music.
  • Mahler: Extension of the motive into massive works that are cohesive
  • Ravel: Orchestration that works
  • Stravinsky: Knowing the limits of the instruments and pushing them beyond
  • Debussy: Harmonic movement like no one else
  • Ives: Bi-tonality and subtle referencing of other works
  • Shostakovich: interdevelopment of themes
  • Copeland: Simple melodies, open harmonies
  • Bernstein: Sense of rhythm that feel melodic
  • Britten: Word painting
  • Reich: interplay of rhythm
  • Ferneyhough: Extending what's possible in music performance
  • Williams: An understanding of the narrative in film music
Again, this list isn't exhausting in either the composers who have influenced me or in what qualities I most admire in them. I am curious as to what additions you might add to this list... (TAG - you're it).

Cautionary Accidentals necessary

Cautionary accidentals are those little friendly reminders that the note you are looking at (about to play) is actually different than the same note previously. Sometimes this is because we've crossed a bar line and the altered note in the previous bar is no long altered, but should be played in the appropriate key signature. Othertimes notes an octave different from the altered note are played in a bar after the altered note, but these notes of a different octave don't retain the alteration (like they would if they were in the same octave). And then there are those times when the key signature has changed and a friendly reminder is presented the first time a note is played in the new key - just to remind the player "you're in a new key."

When I was playing fairly regularly, I didn't find it all that necessary to have cautionary accidentals in the part because the rule is, if the note is altered, either flat or sharp, than that note retains that alteration until the next bar. Notes of the same pitch but different octaves are not altered unless specifically specified. As such, I typically just kept that in mind when playing. The occasions where an altered note is followed in the next bar by the same note unaltered are rare - or so I thought.

One of the comments made about the symphony during the rehearsals was the lack of cautionary accidentals. I didn't bother putting them in the parts or the score. Well, this created more than a few interesting tuning events and a far number of clarifications during rehearsals (not all of them were clarified correctly, I might add). So, I decided I needed to go through the score and put in the cautionary accidentals to the score (I'm going through the score to correct a few other incidentals, so why not add this correction to the list)

To my shock, there are over 30,000 cautionary accidentals needed in the score. The symphony, which is 5 movements for a total of 50 minutes of music, is obviously a lot more chromatic than I first thought.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Finding a Story’s Architecture

In setting about the writing of the libretto for It Must Be Fate I wanted to weave the characters and their stories much the way tapestries are woven on the loom. If you were simply weaving two colours together, warp and wheft, then there would be little if no surprises. But when you add colours and pattern then the weave becomes more complicated. Like life, it can be difficult to see the overall pattern when you are looking too closely at a single line of weaving.

Now that we have audience tested our basic concept and characters I have turned to the writing of the body of the opera. I wish to develop my characters over the long stretch of the story, much in the way characters in film or TV are revealed – scene by scene. I also want to show the intersecting lives of my characters in as realistic a way as possible. The metaphoric use of tapestries and weaving provides my framework, but how exactly do I pattern the story? This is the question that is keeping me up at night.

I have been spending a lot of time this summer reading, watching DVDs and generally examining plot and story in the works of writers I admire in order to settle my ideas of the plot architecture for our opera. For books I’ve been reading Neil Gaiman, Scott Westerfield, Robert Lewis Stevenson, Morgan Llwelyn, Stephen R. Donaldson, Iain Banks… the list goes on. I’ve been watching West Wing, Heros, Sex and the City, Firefly, 24 and Buffy.

Like most writers I am a bit of a magpie and I pore over the writings of others gleaning tricks and techniques, extrapolating ideas and generally observing the ‘weave’ of their characters. Last night, watching season 1 of Heros I had a major epiphany… funny thing was it was not a ‘they did this and wasn’t that cool’ moment. It was rather a ‘they should have done this… wait, I should do that’ kind of moment!

So the architecture of my libretto is taking shape and Chip and I begin the process of weaving words and music together into the whole!

What's on in Scotland this weekend

25-27 July, 2008

25th - Friday

19:30 at Paxton House,

Hebrides Ensemble

26th - Saturday

7:30at Paxton House,
Primrose Piano Quartet

27th - Sunday

14:00 at Ross Bandstand,

Forth Valley Chorus

19:30 at Òran Mór,
The National Youth Jazz Orchestra of Scotland with Mark Lockheart

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Listening to music in a different way

The New York Times is a paper I go back to fairly regularly in terms of music related articles. In the Opinion Section of the website is a blog, Measure for Measure which has a variety of different articles dealing with music writing. Andrew Bird wrote one, Without Words back on 21 June that I keep coming back to.

He initially talks about concern over how much he likes one of his recent projects, then moves into how adding drums changes the feeling of a piece. Bird eventually ends up talking about how words can change a piece and not sure if he will very really like instrumental music - and yet, he's been listening to an instrumental version and liking it.

During the initial compositional process of "It Must Be Fate" there were a lot of decisions made about what the music should do. As we rehearsed it, I was surprised to hear so much of what I wanted in the music to actually be coming out. Then, during the performance, I was so focused on the performance I didn't really listen to the music in that way. However, the recording sheds yet another light on the music, in how it blends and moves and seems to be relentless. The opera really needs some spaces to breathe, but I didn't get that while I was composing or rehearsing the piece. I also was able to work with the mixing engineer on the recording, so I was able to hear how the blends worked (or didn't). I'm happy to say they do (for the most part) just what I'd wanted them too in terms of vocal lines. The accompaniment is too much and needs to be thinned out a great deal (which should make the pianist happy as it is currently a pretty difficult score to play). It will also be re-arranged for more than just piano, but for the working process a piano works.

All of these thoughts are (in part) stirred by the above article by Andrew Bird, with the idea of learning to listen to music in different ways. It's one thing to play it all together, but quite another to take it appear and understand the pieces. And yet another to hear the piece together but in a different mix, bringing out different lines and how that changes the feeling of the piece. Unfortunately, I don't have the luxury to keep performing the opera again and again while I work it to perfection. Hopefully, I will get a few more chances to workshop/preview sections of it before it's premiered. It is coming along really well, but I need to keep listening to get it right.

Musical Introductions in Opera

There are ways to introduce characters without using words. This is one of the powers of opera and it's been translated into film and television. The next time you watch a pilot episode of a new TV series or in the first 20-30 mins of a film, listen carefully to the music as a new character enters the screen, or if the music changes to something dramatically different and then a new character appears, you'll see/hear what I mean. Music is being used to identify characters, let us know if they're the good guys or not - or to confuse us into thinking they're the bad guys when they're not. All of this is in the hands of the composer.

In working on the opera, "It Must Be Fate" my wife (the librettist) and I are reviewing a number of different mediums to identify elements of plot, structure, tone, theme and what music is doing to tie together these elements. Some of what we've seen has excellent dialog, great screen angles and passably poor music, or really poor dialog and fairly good music. It is rare to see both good dialog and good music together. However, when they are in-sync, it tends to be with programmes or movies that are huge in popularity.

It is also interesting how cheesy some of the introductions are in terms of music. We heard the proverbial "dant-dant-dah" for the bad guy, or perhaps a bit more subtle would be a minor or diminished chord (which we also heard) - but still seems to be a bit too in your face in terms of getting the message across. Yet, the point of communication is to transfer an idea; these well known devices are good at communicating because they are well known. I hope we can find more subtle ways to communicate the same ideas and yet still get the message across.

The next step is perhaps to look/listen to other operas to see how other composers communicated these same concepts - if they even bothered (I'm not sure they always did). Off the top of my head, Britten did a wonderful job in Peter Grimes with the court scene making the music feel repressive particularly as Grimes enters the court. However, it tends to go on a bit over long for me. Puccini's Turandot presents the Princess Turandot with a regal introduction, so we understand her royal status, and her character is alluded to in the crowds calling for blood. Before the Princess appears, we have a good idea of her character. Liu, the sympathetic character in the opera is given Signore, ascolta! which illuminates her character, but no really musical introduction prior to that. Ping, Pang and Pong have comic music and they are the comedic relief. Weir did a wonderful job with the introduction of the bad guy in A Night at the Chinese Opera, but I didn't get a strong sense of who the good guys were in terms of the music. I have only seen it once, and may not have been in the best seats (based on a friends impression of the same performance was very different than mine).

Some of what I'll have to decide will be determined by the librettist: Is the character a good guy or bad guy? Do we want to foreshadow a love interest? Will there be plot twists meaning we will want to allude to a character trait that isn't accurate, or will be turned at some later point in the opera? There is a lot of work still yet to do....

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Quality Classical Music post 1950

Although I occasionally rail against the dissonant music of post WWII, there are a number of pieces which do work, very well. Ethan Iverson on his blog Do the Math put out a challenge for a list of good post 1950 music. Terry Teachout responded on his blog About Last Night. Before I list the music on my list I thought I'd comment on their lists.

First Terry's list: The only piece I don't know is Moravec's The Time Gallery. Everything else on this list might have made it on to mine - and when you see my list, many of the composers are the same, so we must share a similar taste in music.

Next Ethan's list: Here I had more difficulty. I don't know Gould's StringMusic and, I have only heard one of Adès' pieces (and didn't like it) so I am not sure I could comment. As for the rest of the pieces, sorry Terry, but I don't like them. However, Terry starts his article with "The classical music written since 1950 that I listen to is frequently fiercely dissonant and somewhat tuneless." And thus the difference between his taste and mine. I like "tunes."

Ok, so here's my list:

Dmitri Shostakovich - Symphony No. 10 in E minor (1953) Op. 93
Aaron Copland - The Tender Land (1954)
Benjamin Britten - Cello Sonata (1961) Op. 65
Leonard Bernstein - everything, but West Side Story is probably my favourite
Henryk Górecki - Symphony No. 3 (1976) Op. 36
David Del Tredici - Final Alice (1976)
John Williams - Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977)
Libby Larson - Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus (1990)
John Corigliano - Symphony No. 2 (1991)

While many of these composers could have several works listed, these are highlights for me. I almost included pieces by Brian Ferneyhough, Christopher Fox or some of the other "New Complexity" school of composers as I really enjoy the music - but yet to find a complete piece that really thrills me. There are also a number of film composers who might have made it on to this list (Howard Shore and Klaus Badelt to name but two) but I consider they follow in the footsteps of Williams - although they might not agree. There are also a number of other composer friends whose music I enjoy... and probably ought to have put them on the list (to include my own) - maybe in the next iteration I give a list of pieces that ought to be performed more by composers who are not so well known.

If you're reading this list, TAG, what's your favourite post 1950 music? Drop me an email when you've posted your list.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Why be a film composer

Varsity published an interesting article on film composers and why they chose to be film composers. While there are a number of interesting answers, perhaps the most striking responses are the freedom they feel when composing for film (not restricted by other forms - particularly classical) and the influence of John Williams. "I didn't want to be a purely 'modern classical' composer" or "I liked to write classical music as well, but then I didn't think that I couldn't enjoy this for my life" are some of the sentiments quoted from the article. For me personally, I like writing both, but there is definitely a challenge in writting for film. It is restricted in needing to fit the film and yet freeing as it can be anything - not limited to a concert hall, live performers, form or structure... and yet, it can be all of those as well. I also enjoy story, narrative and try to put narrative (to some form) in everything I write. Film music is all about narrative, fitting the music with the existing narrative of the film and making it say something more than the just images do on their own.

Many of these composers write music very different from that of Mr Williams and yet, when these other composrs mention their favourite score, Mr Williams seems to be top of the list. Perhaps this is because he's written so much. Then again, maybe it's because his music is just that good. While I'm glad to see these other composers branching out to create their own sound, it's also nice to see Mr Williams get some admiration from others in his field. Ennio Morricone also gets a few nods.

Emerging Composers

What will the next new music be? Some of that will depend on which new composers get "discovered" and the reaction to their works.

The London Symphony Orchestra and the Panufnic Young Composers Scheme gives a chance for emerging composers to work with the LSO and potentially earn a commission for a large scale work. Jazon Yarde's All Souls Seek Joy will be premiered on 28 November 2008, and Charlie Piper has been commissioned for a Barbican concert in the LSO's 2008/2009 season. Reading some of the biographies for the composers who have participated in previous years (2008, 2007, 2006) it's remarkable how many include jazz as an influence. A review of Jason Yarde's music in the Guardian reads, 'Yarde is a musician to watch. In his work, "world" meets jazz meets crossover to the point where such terms mean nothing. We are left with just glorious music.' - 30 November 2007.

Another aspect about each of these composers is the number of awards they have received. They are the cream of the crop. Not all of them are University taught, and several do not have specific compositional training - but that doesn't prevent them from writing beautiful music. I wasn't able to find examples of their works on the Internet, but perhaps the most heartening aspect consistent with pretty much every composer's work is the very tonal/melodic nature of their music. It really is beautiful, lyrical - music.

Do I feel outclassed? No, not particularly - envious perhaps, but I feel I can compete (if that's the right word) in their world. Do I feel old (as most of these composers were born near the same time as my son)? No, as there are many examples of other composers just coming into their own who are my age and older. Do I feel heartened? YES, most definitely. The music I listened to gives me the impression the future of music is headed in a similar direction as my own music... so, I am composing music which is, in many respects, in tune with what other emerging composers are creating. That's cool!!!!

Monday, July 21, 2008

West Side Story: 50 years

One of my favourite musicals is West Side Story. It has great music, powerful story, and a message that rings as true today as it did in Shakespeare day. The Yesterday, the Telegraph did an article, 50 years of West Side Story, in preparation for Sadler Wells upcoming production.

It is basically a series of quotes that talk about the first production and what lead up to this amazing musical. Some of the ones I particularly like are:

Leonard Bernstein I don't know how many people begged me not to waste my time on something that could not possibly succeed... a show full of hatefulness and ugliness.

Carol Lawrence In the beginning, we broke a lot of Equity rules. A month before rehearsals began, Gerry Freedman took the principals, Tony, Maria, Anita, Bernardo, Chino, to this tiny little garret, so hot I can't tell you, for no pay at all, eight hours a day, and we would dissect the characters, talk for hours about why they did the things they did.

From start to finish it is obvious the people on this project believed in what they were doing and (perhaps with blinders on) drove forward to create something that is still amazing theatre. I hope someday to work on a project like this - to work with a group of people who are want to create something so unique, so different, they ignore the rest of the world and drive on. Success is nice, but not the goal - the goal is to be involved when something's coming, something good.

Classical Music, Alzheimer's and a Personal Note

There is an interesting article in The Australian on the connection between learning, music, the brain and Oliver Sack's book Musicophilia.

The article provides a quote from the book, “Anatomists today would be hard put to identify the brain of a visual artist, a writer, or a mathematician, but they could recognise the brain of a professional musician without a moment's hesitation.” Why I found this interesting is because my father has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's. He's played the trombone all his life with many of the last 30 years playing with the Cheyenne Symphony Orchestra (he retired a few years ago - but still plays with a variety of other groups).

In another article by Jill Daniel about Sack's book says music can also helps Alzheimer patients (along with reducing stress and several other health benefits). An article by Denise Dado speaks about fending off the effects of Alzheimer's speaking about turning off the TV and listening to music. Yet another article by Barbara Jacobs, M.S. not only sites Sack's book but speaks about her own discoveries in terms of music and the effects on Alzheimer patients. All of these articles speak about effects of listening to music in terms of triggering memory responses - but not of playing music, perhaps, because the physical nature of playing music requires the brain to think before action. Therefore in listening to music, it is the stimulus which triggers memory. However, playing music requires the memory to exist prior.

When my father came to visit in June to hear the premier performance of my first symphony, we took some time in the week after the concert to get out a pair of trombones and play some duets. I was a pretty fair trombone player (some 25 years ago) but don't really play it any more. However, while the muscles in my lips and stomach (necessary for good tone and control) are pretty much worthless, there are some aspects of playing (like know where the slide goes and what the notes should sound like) I haven't forgotten. Because my father has kept playing, his physical skill is far above mine - then again, he was always the better player. Even with his Alzheimer's his playing is still pretty good - although I should amend that to say, we were playing duets out of an Arban's book we used to play when I was growing up, and one he purchased when he was in the US Army Band. He's played all these pieces before, numerous times, but certainly not for years (30 at least), so he might as well have been sight reading them.

As we played, there was a light in my father's voice, a smile on his face that we don't see very often. He truly enjoys playing the trombone, and particularly sharing the joy with me. However, the duets in the book get progressively harder, moving through the keys - which also increase their difficulty. The more difficult they got the more I was able to adjust to the changes, but he was not. When my lips finally gave out after a couple of hours of playing, I was playing more right notes than he was. Physically he could have continued to play, but the music was beginning to tax him mentally and so frustration was building. My lips were useless and it gave me the excuse to stop for the evening - at a time when he was still glowing with the thought of playing the trombone.

There were times during his visit that things didn't go so well. He gets frustrated because he can't remember things, and he used to love to go on long walks talking politics, religion or any number of cerebral topics, but now walking and talking aren't possible. Occasionally we talk politics (or music) while sitting in the evening; even those conversations are rare, and often move on to lighter topics because he just can't follow the flow of conversation like he used to. Playing the trombone is still something he does fairly well - as long as they are pieces he's seen before. Last year, when I was planning the concert for June, I considered having my father play in at second trombone for the concert - and glad I decided against it. He would have been trilled at the chance, but the music would have been very new, and the cross rhythms and style of the sound are wholly unfamiliar to him. So, while he might have enjoyed the thought of playing, I think the actual concert would have been more frustrating. Whereas sitting in the audience he was thrilled.

In an article by Anthony Hubbard about a woman, Kate Clark, suffering from Alzheimer's, the outlook isn't good. While there are moments of real joy in Kate's life, there are things she doesn't do anymore - argue about politics, drive the car or even cook. She still goes to concerts and helped organise a national conference on dementia in New Zealand in 2007. She is afraid that one day she won't be able to speak at all. The future isn't bright, but moments for today can still have joy and that's what she focuses on.

I don't know if playing the trombone helps my father remember anything else the following day, but it certainly gives him moments where all is right in the world. I'm glad he got to hear the concert. I'm even happier we got to play a few duets together while he was here.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Hollywood Sound: Simple Action Scene

A number of the action films coming out of Hollywood today have orchestral action music as a background music. This music is generally built on fairly simple repetitive elements layered to create a rich sound. Perhaps the easiest way to demonstrate this is an example.

We start the first example with strings. The element is two bars in length, but basically a series of running 16th notes. We then add percussion, timpani and a snare drum - although for a full sound we'd probably want to add a bass drum, and tom toms in the final mix. I added the timpani at bar 3 and snare drum at bar 5 to create a longer build. The accents in the percussion are different than in the strings, creating a syncopated pulse in the music.

The third layer is the melody. This particular one is pretty cheesy, but demonstrates the concept. The brass play pretty much in unison octaves, with only a coloring of harmony. The more elaborate the harmony, the more dense the music and the less effective it is at creating the simple background tension for an action scene. Again, the stresses of the brass are different (but not completely) from the percussion. This creates three different layers of sound and rhythm. The repetitive nature of the music means it can repeat again and again maintaining the tension for the action sequence.

If you want to heighten the tension add some woodwinds on sustains, lower strings (taking the part of the lower brass)and doubling the upper strings (either down or up and octave). Adding octaves and enrich the music without making it muddy or dense. Another way to add tension would be to transpose the music up a semi-tone or two.

A second variation to this simple background action theme is to accent the strings a bit differently. In this example, rather than a shimmering effect with the strings bowing twice each bar with the movement of the notes created by fingering or shifting between two strings, this second option has the bow shifting direction between each note - and, except for the first note, all the notes are the same pitch.

The timpani has a slightly different rhythm as well, but the snare drum can stay the same.

Then the brass adds the final layer with a much slower melody this time. I included the entire collection of instruments as the strings make a slight adjustment in the fourth bar of the phrase playing an E-flat for the first note rather than the E-natural they would typically play in the 2 bar series. This keeps the notes more in line with what the brass are doing harmonically.

These very simple themes would be modulated and developed so they didn't just repeat over and over again through a scene - but they are the core bits of music an action scene could be built from. The key is to use multiple layers, but to keep it simple in terms of harmonic movement and depth. It should be repetitive to create a sense of always moving, but not necessarily going anywhere specific (the audience doesn't know where the scene will end, so the music should give the same impression).

Harmonically, the layers start on the tonic and end with a dominant 7, leading back to the dominant - to start all over again. Certainly other forms of leading chords can be used, but it should lead in a circular motion.

For those films that have more modern (pop) sounding background music, the elements are very similar, only the instruments have changed. So, once you've grasped this concept using orchestral instruments, try doing the same thing using synths, drums and guitars.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Bi-tonality: Composing with new harmonic movement

At the turn of the 20th Century, a number of composers were beginning to explore the sound world of bitonality, the use of more than one key simultaneously. Composers like, Bartók, Stravinski and Ives all explored bitonality in their music. Debussy's second book of Preludes explores the blending of keys - as does my own set of 12 Preludes.

Some theorists consider notation in two keys to be pointless, because the purpose of a key is to suggest a root or tonic. With bitonality, there is no common tonic, and so the keys become irrelevant. And yet surely the point of a key signature is to also aid in the reading/performing of the music?!?

Prelude 2
Prelude 2
In writing my own set of preludes I ran into a problem. The preludes explore bitonality in the migration of keys through the circle of fifths, with each hand moving in a different direction through the keys. So, the first prelude has both hands in C, but the second prelude has the right hand in G while the left hand is in F. For this piece, the "tonality" ends up being in D with a flattened 7th - occasionally flattening the 6th, which gives the piece a nice jazz feel.

Prelude 3
Prelude 3
Prelude 3 had more difficulties. It was originally written with each hand playing only in its key, but this created some very un-pianistic passages. So the piece was re-written with a number of accidentals. Prelude 4 was even worse for the pianist and so key signatures were scrapped entirely.
Prelude 4
Prelude 4

The key signatures return for the fifth prelude with the keys of A-flat and E. Yet, in the sixth prelude I opted to write it in the key of C-sharp (7 sharps), then flatten or sharpen the necessary notes to create the keys of B and D-flat (enharmonically). The seventh prelude is written in 6 sharps as F-sharp and G-flat are the same key on the piano - so in many respects I had returned to what the first prelude experienced, mono-tonality the seventh ends in the relative minor whereas the first prelude ends in major.

Prelude 7
Prelude 7

What I discovered in the process was sometimes key signatures are a hindrance to the performance of a piece. Pretty much every pianist who has looked at the preludes suggests they should be written without a key and just place accidentals where necessary. However, I feel by putting in the key signatures I am encouraging the pianist to "think" in multiple keys, which - if pianists ever get to the point they are truly thinking that way, the music they will conceive will be vastly different than what we experience today; they will discovered a blending of the keys we don't understand.

This is rather like someone learning another language. The second language is difficult to learn, the third not so much and from there learning another language just gets easier as grasping linguistic concepts across multiple languages gets easier with more languages to draw on.

When working with multiple keys, I found it important to understand the common points. Even with keys as remote as A and D-flat (fourth prelude) there are points where the two keys intersect. There intersections then become the focal point for propelling the composition forward, although they may or may not end up being the "tonic" or resolution notes.

Then it is important to look at the complex scale, the meta-scale of both keys combined. What is the mode presented with the meta-scale? In the case of the second prelude, D is the relative minor for F and the dominant for G, so an easy key to migrate toward in terms of working with these two keys. I would say playing meta-scale and listening to it again and again to gain a sense of its migration might work, however, this tends to point toward the use of pre-conceived tonal leanings and not necessarily allow for something new. This is the process I used with the first few preludes (up through prelude 6) and why I feel these early preludes are not as strong as the later ones - where I took a more analytical approach to determining the key note for the piece.

Some of the preludes move harmonically similar to mono-tonal piece in that chord structures can be analysed showing a IV, V, I progression. However, other preludes tend to move harmonically linearly, moving the harmonies up or down along the scale. Still other preludes are grounded in a tonal center, shifting the tonal centre at times, to create harmonic movement, but not in a typical cadence type manner.

As tonality moves forward, I think there will be more exploration of this sort of bitonality and the resulting harmonies. Perhaps we will not need to express the music in terms of a written key (as we know it today) - but bitonality can create vastly definitely different harmonic movement from standard tonal progressions - and thus opens a whole new world to possibilities.


While the project of writing these preludes helped me discovered some interesting aspects of bitonality, and perhaps a better understanding as to what happen harmonically when two keys merge. However, looking back on these pieces (after more than a year) I realise they aren't as successful at achieving a true sense of bi-tonal writing. Part of the problem is the way I approached determining the two keys. I think, if I had a method of determining keys that wouldn't eventually be the same key enharmonically the resulting pieces (at least the first and seventh) would have been bi-tonal.

It is interesting to me that Prelude 4 and Prelude 10 are in the same keys (with the hands reversed) and yet, Prelude 4 centers around D while Prelude 10 centers around B (it was by choice they are different).

I don't get reviewers

Here is a quote from Kenneth Turan review in the LA Times, "The refreshing thing about the 'Mamma Mia!' show was that it dared to be simple. Just those 18 songs, adroitly presented, with just enough plot, dancing and stage business to get you cleanly from one to the other. That's all anyone cared about and, frankly, that's all anyone should have cared about."

What???  So, basically, the musical "Mamma Mia!" is a sing-a-long for ABBA fans with no real plot.   Ok, that's pretty much what I thought the movie was, and while it was lightly entertaining - if you're not an ABBA fan, it's fairly lame in terms of substance.

*sigh* - The stage show and music "Mamma Mia! are huge successes - even though they are little more than ABBA sing-a-longs.  Yet, write a new fluff musical where the music is fun with hummable tunes and the show is panned - literally crusified for having no substance.  Write something new, that has new music, challanging and difficult (anything from Sondheim) and generally get ignored by the powers that be - although Sondheim did geta lifetime achievement award, no one bothered to tell him prior to the event so he wasn't in attendance. 

IF there is one thing I disagree about musicals like Mamma Mia, is they make money (a lot of money) off of pop memorabilia - and since the theatre industry is all about making money, new writers are hard pressed to compete.  Producers want sure things, shows that will make money, rather than take a chance on creating something new.  The recent trend for major pop stars/composers to venture into other music ventures - leveraging their pop fame into ticket sales in other arenas only makes it that much more difficult for emerging artists to create something new in those arenas - unless they work in the pop world first. 

Yes - I rant about the need for the classical world to accept something from the pop industry in terms of music, to blend the two styles in creating something new - and yet, here I am ranting about pop stars making it good in an industry outside fo pop.  Isn't this hypocritical?    No - in that what I'd like to see is a more open accepting classical world in terms of what makes classical music - and a more discerning pop world that isn't willing to just accept the same old fluff they've already been sold as something new. 

We, as an audience, should demand more quality - in our TV shows, in our music.  By accepting, appreciating... no expecting a performance to nothing more than a re-run of previous material, by wanting something that is nothing more than a way to dig into our pocketbooks by tugging at our heart strings - all we do is promote the money making machine to treat us like sheep, put us out in a pasture we lived in all our lives and ignore us - while they make a fortune. 

- Having said all of the above here is a review by Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronical who pretty much sums up what I think of the musical. He is positive about it, even enjoyed it (yes, I enjoyed the movie) - but there were things wrong with it that keep it from being a really good movie.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Harmonic Movement

Previously I mentioned Harmonic Movement as a way to create tension, building interest in music. Then I thought I probably ought to talk about Harmonic Movement and its roll in Contemporary Classical Music and to do that start with a brief history of harmonic movement.

Brief History

When music began to move into more complex harmonies than the single or duet lines of Gregorian Chant, it did so by harmonising notes that sounded pleasing, but music was more horizontal in terms of movement of each line, rather than the vertical harmonies created by multiple lines. By the time of the Renaissance, chord progresses still weren't a developed concept. Multiple voice music was beginning to play with progressions, with the development of a ground bass. There where certain progressions music made more enjoyable (see Passamesso Moderno and Passamesso Antico), but cadences which provide a resolution to the harmonic movement were not common practice.

By the time of the Baroque composers, harmonic progression had establish a IV, V, I movement - that is to say, a chord IV (F-A-C) moves to a chord V (G-B-D) which resolves to a chord I (C-E-G). The I chord considered the tonic chord. The IV chord considered the Sub-Dominant and the V chord considered the Dominant. Adding a 7th to the V chord made the movement to the I chord even more satisfying. Playing with the triads within the standard (Western) scale created a variety of different cadences, but the IV, V7, I was the standard end cadence. The reason the V7 felt the need to resolve to a I chord is due to the leading note - in the above example, the B. In the V7 chord we know we are not hearing a I chord, because in the Key of G the F would be sharp (G-B-D-F#). A V7 in the key of C is G-B-D-F, so this chord in obviously not in the root position of the key; this chord is considered unstable as a result. The B in this chord "wants" to move up. With the I chord, the B resolves to C and we feel as if we have reached a place of stability.

As composers experimented with chords, new additions to the progression were introduced. A V chord (G-B-D) in the key of C can also be a I chord in the key of G. The V chord in the key of G is D-F#-A. If you play this chord before a G chord it sounds as if you are going to resolve to a G chord (especially if you include the 7th, a B). Then, if you play a V7 in the key of C (G-B-D-F) the need to continue to resolve is still present and so a further movement to the C chord (chord I in the key of C) is necessary. This sort of movement provides composers with the ability to shift keys and adds interest to the final cadence by extending the cadence and the need for resolution. Romance composers extended this exploration of the triad by introducing Neapolitan 6th Chords which extended the sense of the leading note to more than just one note. Then stringing by these chords together, composers could create chains of chords resolving to chords which resolve to chords.

Moving into the 20th century, composers began substituting chords, using chords in place of similar chords. For example, the ii chord (D-F-A) is similar to the IV chord (F-A-C) Add the 7th to the ii chord and you have the same chord with the added D. This type of chord substitution is really popular in jazz, creating a II-V-I progression, a jazz standard. Other types of progressions where developed, each one indicative of a style of music, such as Ragtime Progression and Blues Progression. There are also a whole series of progressions when dealing with melodic minor modes - and worthy of a book on the topic (let alone a brief blog).

Ultimately, the result is a host of different chord progressions that eventually lead to some form of resolution. The different progressions have different sounds, creating different feelings in the music, thus the reason Ragtime has a different progression from Blues and so on. Recently there has been resurgence in using modes (or scale) from before Baroque period and the established use of the tonic chord as the root of music progression. Twelve-tone music and serialism have a completely different concept in terms of harmonic progression - and, again, are really a whole topic on their own.

The concept of tension in Western tonal music is based on the desire to return to the tonic or chord I. As the music strays from this chord, the music builds tension. The tension is then released when the music returns to the tonic.

Other websites on the topic:

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Obscuring the Beat (2)

Previously I wrote of how the beat has been manipulated, transformed and obscured in music across pretty much all forms. But to say that it happens is one thing, to discuss how to achieve it, and the resulting effect is something very different. When composing a piece of music it is important to create movement in the music - not just a moving melodic line, but the piece should feel as if it speeds up and slows down as if riding waves. The music should feel as if there are peaks and valleys as the listener progresses through the piece.

Harmonic movement is one way composers are taught to create a sense of tension in a piece. By speeding up the harmonic movement as a piece nears the end of a section, the music feels as if it speeds up, the tension increases and a "peak" is achieve in preparation for the cadence. Yet adjusting the rhythm of piece can have a similar effect in terms of keeping the piece shifting through peaks and valleys.

In Bach's Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring, the syncopated or off-beat start to the upper melody gives a lift to the piece. The lower on-beat rhythm tends to move down at the beginning of the phrase. With the upper part starting on the off-beat and rising from that point, there is a strong sense of hope. The music feels rejuvenated.

A hemiola creates a feels of hesitation in the music. In complex time, the music is "dancing along" in some sort of triplet feel when it is slowed down into a duplet. This hesitation creates a similar feeling to a rallentando without actually changing the beat or tempo of the music. And since a hemiola is just a brief occurrence, it acts as a brief respite for the music, which then continues on at the previous pace.

Both of these forms of beat manipulation are fairly simple and yet can still very effective for modern composers. The key is to understand the effect these techniques have on the music and then knowing when the technique can have the greatest impact in the overall scope of the piece.

In my Prelude 2, the music starts on an off-beat and climbs up from an F to an A. This starts the music with a lifting motion. However, the melodic line then descends down to the A an octave below. So, while the piece starts with a lift, the overall musical line is a descent. The same sort of lifting motion before a descent is found in bar 5 in the left hand of the piano (bass line). These little off-beat moments provide a slight lift (or peak) to the melody before we journey down through the valley.

The piece is in complex time (6/8) with a triplet feeling. The last bar of the opening phrase (bar 4) has a hemiola which slows then end of the phrase down just as another line starts. The next hemiola doesn't occur until bar 13, which is the midway through the complete melodic line for this prelude. Bar 21 and 22 end the melodic line and another hemiola appears, slowing the piece down in preparation to begin again. The hemiola acts as a phrase marker, slowing the piece down at points in preparation for something new to begin. They break up the overall phrase to give it a sense of motion with peaks and valleys in terms of tempo.

Prelude 2 is a jazz piece with a laid back feel. The techniques of off-beat starting notes and including a hemiola at cadence points are old compositional tools. However, using these techniques in a "modern" jazz piece has the same effect - the slowing of the tempo before cadence points to heighten the laid back feeling. The simple techniques help music move in interesting ways. While these may seem like old and archaic compositional tools, understanding these tools can help even the most modern of pieces stay interesting.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Obscuring the Beat

A number of moderns composers, in an attempt to create interesting rhythms, obscure the beat - this is to say, they create counter rhythms or off beat stresses that do not fall on the beat of the bar thus giving the feeling the beat is actually somewhere other than it is on the written page. Ok, why do this? Isn't the point of music to be rhythmical?

Well, yes, but if all music were straight to the beat it would be boring. If you think about Bach's Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring, the opening moving melodic line starts off the upbeat, even though the underlying bass line is firmly on the beat. The very idea of a hemiola is to shift from a complex (triplet) pattern to a simple (duplet) pattern and common in the music of Haydn and Mozart. As music progressed to the romantic composers, the beat became more and more sublime with irregular patterns creating a feeling of rubato even though the actual beat didn't change. Debussy was a master at creating music with no sense of pulse or one that seemed to float in hesitation as in his Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune.

Mid way through the 20th Century composers moved so far in this direction that in Messian's Livre d'orgue (1951-2) - his only serial piece - the pulse is practically non-existent, even though the need to keep the pulse in the mind of the performer is critical in recreating the music. Ferneyhough and the School of New Complexity compose pieces where the metronome marking is often extremely slow, a quartet note equal to 50 to 60 beats a minute. However, the music itself is comprised of eighth notes to sixty-fourth notes (or even shorter) so the nuances of the subtle shifts in music can be accurately portrayed. The beat (or metre) exists, but not in any sense the audience can actually tap their foot to it.

Juxtapose this with popular music form. Latin rhythms spend as much if not more time off-beat than on. A mambo rhythm is comprised of one on-the-beat stress and then seven off-beat stresses. One of the biggest differences between rock and jazz music is the way the beats are stressed or laid back. Jazz tends to stress the two and four beats in a bar, with more of a triplet feel to the eighth notes, while rock stresses the one and three and the eighth notes are played straight. Obviously this is an over simplification, but a general rule of thumb for comparison purposes. In Hip Hop and other Urban forms, the stress of the beat is important as they are dance forms of music. However, it's common for the underlying drum pattern in the high hat to shift between stressing the beat to stressing the off beat - often this shift happening as the music moves from one eight bar section to another to create a different feel between the two sections.

Up to this point I've only spoken about relatively modern Western forms of music. Prior to Bach, the music of the Renaissance was fairly lose rhythmically. Madrigals have a metre to them, but the lines move independent of each other obscuring the pulse constantly. Looking back even further, plain chant may have rhythmic note values (or durations) but there is not an even metre to the progression. The time signature in music was developed in the late Renaissance. Indian Ragas are based on rhythmic and/or melodic movements, but how these ragas progress through a piece is wholly up to the performer. They may well migrate to be come unidentifiable from the original if held side by side, rather than seen as a progression from beginning to end (this is similar to Western motivic development). Jewish and Islamic chant is extremely free flowing avoiding any sense of beat and movement of the notes wholly in the mind and emotional state of the singer - even when accompanied by drums. There may be pulse points, places where the singer comes to a cadence in "time" with the drums, but in between these points the music is very free flowing. With the Gamelan, an Indonesians percussion ensemble, rhythm is very much a part of the music, but a strict pulse is rarely evident. Celtic folk music is very rhythmic, but listen to the stresses of a song like "The Rocky Road to Dublin" and you'll find the metre is in a 9/8 time signature (although I've seen it written in 4/4), with a hesitation beat in the phrase (a pain for bodhran players). Mongolian folk music has a very similar sound, with percussion playing a huge role in keeping the music propelled forward - but there is still a sense of hesitation in the music which keeps it interesting (and, even though culturally miles away from the Celts, very similar in sound).

So, what does this say about music and beat? Music is linear, it moves through time from a starting place and eventually comes to an end, but how it gets there isn't necessarily a straight line and certainly isn't one that followed a metered pace. Yes, there are pieces like Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance which plod along at a measured beat, which is why every high school and college in the US use this music for graduation - the students can keep in step (most of the time). These heavily metered pieces of music are the exception and not the rule. Humans like arrhythmic music. Perhaps we like some sort of a pulse to keep us in step as we dance, but the music itself needs to have something more, something different to the straight beat in order to hold our interest.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Getting your music out there

I've occasionally written about the process of getting music heard, and the uphill road classical composers have to tread. Well, it seems I am not alone. William Weir writes about Kenneth Fuchs in The Red Orbit. Mr Fuchs and Ms Frank (see previous post) are recorded composers, both have studied with well recognised composers - and both struggle to get their music heard.

So, if there is a lesson to be learned it must be - nothing worthwhile is going to be easy.

Combining Classical and Folklore

I was reading the daily news and came across this article in the San Jose Mercury News. Composer Gabriela Lena Frank will have her music performed in August at the Music@Menlo Festival.

Ms Frank has a diverse cultural backgrounds, Chinese-Peruvian-Jewish-Lituanian growing up in Berkeley California. She loves latin rhythms and incorporates folk influences into her music. She has been hailed as representing "the next generation of American composers."

Another article in the Independent speaking on how "Classical performers need to stop being stuffy and get in the groove." Kristjan Järvi's article is all about how Classical performances should be entertaining (yea!)

Film and Music Acousmatique

The film industry has taking the role of sound to new heights as we explore the meaning of sound (and music) in terms of the images we see. We, as viewers, are often aware of the music and the tension it can bring to a scene. Practically everyone can ominous double bass pounding in "Jaws" just before the shark would attack or the screaching high strings in "Psycho". But often the music is underplayed, subtle to the point of disappearing into the scene so we don't realise the effects on our psychi. The music, if done right, can add emotional impact to a scene, to a film, so the end result is a more powerful response - and a more enjoyable experience.

Then there is the organic sounds of a film, the sounds we expect to hear (and think we expect to hear based on the images of the screen) - the creaking of a door, or the electronic hum of machinery. Sound Design has become a huge part in the creation of film today. Foley artists, who used to just add footsteps and gun shot into films, are now creating a host of sound layers to heighten our film experience. In the film "Bourne Identity", John Powell was the composer, but Karen Baker was the Supervising Sound Effects Editor. In this film they used a variety of different engine sounds to recreate the sound of the mini chase scene. The actual engine sound of a mini wasn't quite right to create the effect of the high speed chase. However, if you listen to the music in that plays during the scene, there are pitches that echo the same pitches in the engine sound. So, not only did the sound engineers create the engine sound using a variety of different sounds layered together, it was pitched so the music could meld with it. In a previous post I spoke about the use of pitched sounds in the film "Seven", so this sort of sound usage is nothing unique.

I am not a fan of électroacoustique music or acousmatique. Luc Ferrari is a composer who produced a series of very interesting sound-scapes. While some credit them as musical compositions, I prefer to label them Sound-scapes as they are less music and more a journey through recorded organic sounds. There is no doubt the impact his work has had on understanding the relationship of sound and music. However, (IMHO) his électroacoustique music falls more in the realm of sound design than music. This doesn't diminish its power or relevance; it just gives it a different realm for which it can be defined and explored and associated with other like works.

Where is all this going?

Often times, when working on student projects, the blend of sound design and music composition gets blurred. Some of this is because young film makers don't understand the role of sound in their films and some is because there is generally no budget, so people perform multiple roles. The result is I occasionally get asked to include sound effects into the film as well as provide music. One of my most recent projects I was asked to actually edit the sound, to sooth out the rough spots. This was very illuminating!

The film doesn't have much dialog; most of it is just city street sounds, running water or sounds of an office (sans people - so the hum of machines). In moving from one scene to another it was necessary to add some effects, equalising and compression to the sounds to even them out and highlight the desired aspect. In doing so I discovered there were some very similar elements in the very different sounds. If I took out the high end of the street sounds there was a low frequency hum very similar to that of the office sound. If I highlighted the upper register of the office, the "hiss" was similar to the flowing water. As the scenes move from one to another it was possible to fade from one sound into another by shifting the equalisation of the sound as well as the volume. The end result is an interesting, nearly seamless shift from one scene to another. There are moments when the sound jumps from one to another, but most of the time the blend is almost unheard. If you close your eyes it's difficult to tell when one scene ends and another begins.

As I began composing music for the film I am going to focus on those elements of the sounds. I plan on identifying a collection of pitches found in the film and use those from which to create the score. Then, by imitating the sound through the music, I should be able to create something that doesn't catch your attention, but rather just becomes part of the overall sound-scape as if it was there during the filming and not an afterthought.

Looking forward, I would like to work on a project where the sound comes first - a series of organic sounds are recorded, then manipulated to where they blend and meld losing their individual identities. Then create a film where the images initially match the sounds, but as the sounds are manipulated, blended, the images are switched to be of objects other than ones associated with that sound. The overall effect should get people to think about the sounds and the images and how they are associated, more in common than we might think.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Time signature and Tempo: Conducting or Composing the right mood

What is the proper time signature and tempo for a section? Should the tempo follow the perceived beat, or should it be related to what the composer wants to impose as the beat? Are they provided to give ease to the performers or arbitrary points to control the passage of time and nothing else? Over the next few weeks I will be examining the role of time signatures and their relationship to tempo and the eventual performance of a piece. While I will begin by using my own music as examples, these posts will not be limited to my music. If you have selections of music you think agree or refute what I say here, please add your comments. I will endeavor to find and post the suitable examples as images to coincide with your arguments.

Time signatures are something I struggle with as a composer. I feel as though they should be indicative of where the stresses are in a piece. This means it should be as fast or as slow as the stress intended by the composer, even if the piece "seems" to move faster. For example, the piece to the right is the first page of my Symphony No 1. It is marked in 2/4 and at the tempo of Largo (quarter note equals 50). This is very slow, even though the movement of the upper strings (and eventually the woodwinds) is much faster than the tempo suggests. In performance the piece "feels" as if it might be written just as easily in 4/4 with the tempo of Moderato (quarter note equals 100) - the notes doubled in length. However, I think this gives the opening of the piece a much different feeling than the 2/4-Largo version.

Later on in this piece (page 4, bar 24), the time signature switches to the 4/4-Moderato I had suggested could start the piece. When I originally composed this portion, I did not switch to the faster tempo. However, post concert, I really felt this portion definitely moved at the faster tempo. At bar 60 the time signature/tempo revert back to the 2/4-Largo for a brief moment as the music returns to the opening motive - only to move to 4/4 and an Allegro (quarter note equals 116) at bar 69.

The purpose of the slower beginning is to stress the first beat of the bar and then slightly less on the second beat of the bar. if the music were written in 4/4-Moderato the first beat would still be the primary stress with the third beat the secondary stress (what was the second beat). However, the second and fourth beats would also become points of stress, with the up beats receiving a slight stress as well.

In the first example, this would cause (in the Flute part) the F to be primary stress, the D to be secondary stress and the E-flat to have a tertiary stress. In 2/4 the E-flat has no stress (or shouldn't). Looking down at the Violin I part, the C, E-flat and B should all have the same stress equivalent. This may seem a bit pedantic on the part of the composer - but it does have an effect.

The first bar also has phrase marking in the Violin I which seems to belie the desire to have the second third and fourth note non-stressed. If the performers, tie the first two notes together, and then the second two notes together there is a natural accent which occurs on the third note (the first of the second pair of notes). This would be count two in 4/4 or the upbeat of one in 2/4). In 2/4 there shouldn't be an accent on it and yet... I've written the phrase markings to put an accent there. Hmmmmm... Is the composer out of his head?

No. Because if you look at bar 4 in the Violin I part, the first beat of the bar rests, followed by three notes tied together (removing stress from the second and third notes). Up in the Oboes and 2nd Flute their notes are on the up beat with rests on the beat (if it were written in 4/4). This "up beat" movement puts stresses where there shouldn't be stresses, removing or lightening the stresses where there are or should be stresses. Thus, the music should feel a 2/4 pulse and not that of 4/4.

Perhaps this subtlety is lost in most performances and certainly conductors could ignore my markings and conduct it any way they choose - but, I spent a fair amount of time going over this section trying to decide just what it needed in terms of time signature and tempo markings. It is, after all, the first of the piece and therefore sets the expectations for what is to follow.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Piano Preludes are done...

photo by Clare Martin
It's been a long time in coming, but I've finally finished the 12th Prelude to complete the set. You can listen to all the preludes here as well as some of my other compositions. I haven't installed a flash player yet...

You may be wondering why only twelve Preludes as typically there is a prelude for every major and minor key so that would make for 24. However, my approach to the preludes is a bit different. I don't work strictly with major or minor keys, but rather move the hands in opposing directions around the circle of 5ths. So, while the first prelude has both hands in the key of C, the second prelude has the right hand in G (1 sharp) with the left hand in F (1 flat). The two hands continue to migrate around the keys until they reach the twelfth. The 12th prelude is the inverse of the second.

If you're interested in seeing sheet music, drop me a line and I can send pdf's for the ones you're interested in.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

A problem with New Classical Music

Ok, I occasionally rant about the direction of classical music... but I'm not alone.

Joe Queenan of the Guardian feels much the same.

And yet... Tom Service presents a compelling reason as to why Joe is wrong.

Lesley Aeschliman writes about why Classical music isn't dead (and may never be) - with far more voters voting no, than yes. Although, Amber Jansky (a yes voter) speaks about just the sort of issue I am concerned with - the future of Classical music in terms of market share and what is it that people are really listening to.

The Film industry gets hold of Opera

We are in an age where cinema is affecting our lives in ways we don't realise (until perhaps it is too late). There are claims that cigarette smoking on screen glamorizes it, the American dialect in speech can be heard the world over, even in countries where English is not the primary language and film directors, writers and composers are branching out to live stage productions. None of these things are new. There was a call for legislation in the 60's to ban smoking on screen. The film industry responded by voluntarily cutting back (for a while - as now it's difficult to find a film where there isn't someone smoking at some point). John Wayne and Clint Eastwood cowboy flicks were huge international hits bringing American Old West culture to the world (even though some of them were filmed in Italy - thus spaghetti westerns). Film stars are often gone to Broadway bringing their fame to on stage productions, and Mel Brookes has given new life to his film "The Producers" by taking it to Broadway - although that's where he originally intended it to be performed.

But there is a new craze, with Cronenberg and Shore teaming up with the opera "The Fly" and with Robert Lepage's production of "The Rake's Progress". While the later was written as an opera (Stravinsky's only full length opera with libretto by Auden), the current production at Covent Gardens (by way of San Francisco, Madrid, Lyon and Brussels), its story is that of a film maker and so the production uses lots of film effects to bring the production to life.

Does it succeed? - While I have not seen the production, Richard Fairman of the Financial Times finds "the logic of Auden's tightly constructed libretto has been shot to pieces." He enjoyed the "wide-screen Texas landscape and the rooftop swimming pool" - but Edward Seckerson of the Independent wasn't impressed. Rupert Christiansen of the Telegraph considers it "a major disappointment." Both reviewers comment on how they were disappointed by the direction, even though the concept had real possibilities.

On the other hand Dominic McHugh of MusicalCriticism.com gave the production three and half stars. Some of the points that Fairman and Seckerson point out are carried through with McHugh's review, but where McHugh differs is his comparision of the stage production with the DVD (which McHugh thinks really works). The staging, which allows for expansive views removes the intimacy of opera, so the performers seem swamped by the sets. This is not a problem with the DVD production as close-ups are still possible.

So, where did Lepage go wrong? The story is of a film maker and so Lepage attempted to put a film on stage - and (IMHO) this doesn't work. Opera is different than film, Broadway is different than film. "Evita" is a powerful musical, and some say the acting by Madonna is what killed the movie, but personally I feel it was the direction by Alan Parker. Parker didn't know whether we was making a film or filming a musical - and the lack of clarity made for a poor film. "Moulin Rouge", on the other hand, was brilliant - even though the singing by Nicole Kidman wasn't first rate. Baz Luhrmann understood he was making a film and so the production was focused in all the right directions. "The Lion King" which was a cartoon was transformed into a successful on stage production by Julie Taymor - who wasn't trying to reproduce a cartoon on stage, but bring the story to life.

I am not against people in the film industry crossing the line to live theatre (or visa versa). But I do believe they need to understand live theatre is a different media and so requires a different approach. "The Fly" is getting warm reviews, although Howard Shore isn't fairing well. "The Rake's Progress" is (at least in terms of finances) a successful production - but (while I've not seen either, so arguably I may be speaking out of turn), I think both missed the mark of what they could have been.

Some interesting notes:

  • Stravinsky's score is neo-classic while Shore's is more akin to something from the Schoenberg school of atonality. Stravinsky's music is praised; Shore's is not.
  • Placido Domingo directs "The Fly" and given praise for his sensitive touch to a difficult score. Thomas Adès directs "The Rake's Progress" and every reviewer felt it was too sluggish. Many spoke of the rich sounds out of the orchestra, but occasionally the singers were drowned out.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Accessible Language in Opera

Reading an article in the NY Times today I realised I "grew" up in an era where Supertitles were on the cutting edge, not necessarily something we took for granted or just accepted as common place, found in all the "best" houses - but rather a new idea that still struggles after 25 years.

I didn't grow up in New York, so the opera of my childhood (more than 25 years ago) was found on PBS which included subtitles. When I finally made my way to the opera house, Denver they didn't have the technology. Then (some years later), I found myself in the San Francisco Opera house and glad to see they did have it. But at this point I thought this was because San Francisco was a more upscale house, not because this was necessarily a new technology at the time.

The article goes on to discuss what opera houses did before supertitles. Some provided the libretto in the programme, or at least a detailed synopsis. Others began performing translations to make the opera more accessible.

When I ventured to Edinburgh and saw a production (granted this was an amateur one) perform a translation of an opera, I found the whole experience odd to stay the least. The music didn't seem to fit the flow of the language (or visa versa). Even though I could understand (for the most part) what people were singing about, I had the synopsis in the programme. The expense of hiring a supertitle machine (and operator) was probably beyond the budget of this amateur group, and they wanted the performance to be accessible for their audience. Surely the audience could have understood the plot without needing to understand every word. IMHO, that is the role of the music, to provide a sense of what lies behind the words - the thoughts and feelings of the characters so that, while the words are important (my librettist would kill me if she thought I felt the words were superfluous) they are not so critical that we should sacrifice the music with a translation.

English is a wonderfully poetic language, but very different from Italian or German. What a composer can do with the music of the words in Italian just doesn't work in the English language. The reverse is true as well. English is my mother tongue, so I prefer to work with English words in music. As such, there are ways I play with the language to use the sounds the words make to enhance the music. I think a translation into any other language using the same music would fail to capture this essence.

Many years ago I had the pleasure of seeing Oedipus Rex in the original Greek. I don't have a background in Greek, so all the words were Greek to me. Yet, the music of the language, the poetry of the sounds was evident in the performance. Even though this was a play and not an opera, there was still music in the words. I prefer this production over others I have seen with an English translation, because I have yet to see a translated version which captures the music of the original.

Opera, for me, is very much the same. If the composer did their job, the music and the words should be married to such a degree that a translation would require a re-write of the music. So, rather than translate, provide supertitles. Allow the music to sing in its original, and technology to bridge the gap.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Why more of "The Fly"

You might well ask that question and the answer would be "We are working on an opera and interested in understanding what works and what doesn't in the modern sense of opera." Since the recent opening of "La Mouche" (the Fly) in Paris I have been intrigued by what the response is - particularly in terms of music with the score by Howard Shore (of Lord of the Rings fame).

Le Monde wrote the following (translated by Google): The music "Essentially atonal but occasionally sentimental, talkative but static, this music could have played to forge codes soundtracks of science fiction and horror of the 1950's but it prefers to remain in the respectable. And, as often, respectable bored."

Eric Dahan of Libération said Mr. Shore had “perhaps overestimated his ability to write a lyric work (as quoted in the New York Times). Plácido Domingo conducted the orchestra and involved in the production said, "There are very moving moments, very melodic moments. But as the narrative advances, the orchestration becomes harder. Had he done it another way, it would not have worked."

Obviously the story in this opera is important (as it is in "It Must Be Fate" - the opera we are working on). While it seems this production is going to be successful, it seems as if the music has missed the mark, not quite lived up to all it could be. Then again, we should remember that Stravinsky started a riot at the opening of his ballet Le Sacre du printemps("The Rite of Spring") when it opened in Paris. So Paris criticism of music isn't always a sign of something bad.

Unfortunately for Shore, Manuel Brug writing in Die Welt was also not kind to the music.

"It Must Be Fate" is taking a different direction in terms of music. Rather than presenting something that might make Arnold Schoenburg proud (as one reviewer remarked of Shores score), we are trying to incorporate more modern/pop forms of music. The reviewer of our preview performance remarked we couldn't decide between "Tommy" or "Tosca" and that is exactly where we want to be... a blending which brings the two worlds together.

Are we successful? Well, we're not done yet - but we think we're closer than Howard Shore to finding the right music for the occasion. Now all we need is a few big names to want to open it in Paris (or London or New York... or Edinburgh).