TwtrSymphony: Lessons in Composition

Every new project has bumps in the road. The key is to learn from them.


As a composer, I am always striving to improve my craft. When I was studying at the undergraduate level, I needed exposure to a broad spectrum of different styles to experience what was possible with sound. At the graduate level, I began honing my skills in the sounds I gravitated to into what resonated most with the sounds I wanted to create. Now, with TwtrSymphony, I'm crafting the pieces together, continually making adjustments as I discover what works (and what doesn't).

If you've listened to any of my more recent compositions, you'll realize I love intense rhythms. Even in the slow pieces, there is an underlying pulse that is fairly fast. These rhythms also shift between groups of twos and threes. I find these small groupings are easy to grasp for both musicians and listeners without the need of counting every beat within them and yet by shifting between two and three, I can create a sense of syncopation similar to some styles of music and yet something unique. It is this unique rhythmic syncopation which shifts to irregular beats I really enjoy.

This style of music has a problem when played by multiple instruments -- the beats need to be extremely accurate. One musician playing a string of fast moving notes can apply a sense of rubato to the string to give it character, flavor. Ten musicians applying "character" to the string of notes sounds like a train wreck! Even when each individual line sounds perfect on its own, the combination of different styles or interpretation fails. Just providing a click track to match the tempo isn't enough to give the 'spirit' of the music to a large group of musicians. The musicians need an overall guide as to what character the melodic string needs --just what sort of rubato (if any) can or should be applied.

As the musicians became familiar with the process for TwtrSymphony, and I twigged to the inherent problems created by my style, the string of rapid notes are getting better. The tracks for the third movement are much closer and easier to align with each other than the first, even though many of the musicians felt the third movements was actually much more difficult to play. What recordings I've worked with for the fourth movement seem to suggest even more coming together of composer and musician with regard to how to capture the sense of rhythm without sounding like a dozen different songs being performed at the same time.

One of the ways I am achieving this is using more mono-melodic movement, rather than the denser poly-melodic movement I tend to write. When all the parts are moving in the same direction, even if they aren't playing the same notes, there is a similar sense as to how those lines should sound, where they peak and where they settle.

Density is another issue I continue to struggle with in my music. When I listen to other composers (past or present) there is a sense of space to the various lines of music. Often, there is only one line that is actually moving, creating the motion of the music, while any other lines present are rather static and subordinate to the main line. When the singular line is taking focus music has a clean sense of direction.

Bach's inventions are a style of music where multiple lines have equal priority and weight. Inventions apply the interweaving of melodic lines. While, I love this type of music too, my struggle is to let each singular line have its moment before I weave other lines around it. When I listen to my music, I hear each line simultaneously, so there is no sense of clutter. Yet, I recognize in performance many of the lines are lost, not fully appreciated in context. It's rather like looking into a forest filled with fireflies. The image of all those blinking lights is magical, but no individual light ever really captures focus.

This is particularly true with TwtrSymphony, where I had only a couple of minutes to bring a piece from beginning to end. It's not that I wanted to cram a dozen different themes into each movement, but that each line has dozens of variations. One variation wraps around another so elegantly I find myself playing with the interplay of the variations together rather than letting them float on their own.

Birds of a Feather has a sense of magic --music shimmering in the distance. There are lines that are quite lovely (IMHO), yet some of them don't get enough spotlight. Hearing the parts come together in the engineering studio I get a chance to really focus on each individual instrument and its melodic line. I'm pleased with how each one seems to be self contained. I don't feel any musician has a part which is just there to provide background for the others. However, when putting them together, I also realize the music becomes dense. The jury is still out as to whether it is too dense. We'll see how people react as the tracks become available.

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