Welcome to my blog

I have created this site in order to provide performers, listeners and composers with a description of a composer's experiences with the creative process. The posts will provide discussions of the inspirations, challenges, and successes of a composer from the inception of the piece to the culmination in performance. I will provide a link to where you can see and hear the works in progress. Comments and questions are always welcomed. They will not posted unless you grant me permission.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Poem 2 finished

Before I started work on verse 3, I went back and reviewed what I composed thus far. There was something bothering me about what I wrote and it nagged at me frequently while away from my computer. When I went through the piece today, I realized that the biggest problem was that some of the words were on the wrong beat. So I changed the meter in spots so that some of the words that were on beat 3 of the 9/8 are now on beat 1 of the new 6/8 measures. I also added an extra beat to the clarinet reflections at the end of each part of the verse so that there is a bit more repose before moving on. The piece now has a nice balance between 6/8 and 9/8 so it is not too patterned yet at the same time, it fits the rhythm of the words.

The third verse is again modified strophic. The rhythm of the melody, some notes of the melody, some of the harmony, and the counter melodies all have variations. The ending is a reflection of my interpretation of the poem. The word "Solitude" has two feelings associated with it. One is loneliness and the other is peace. I enjoy having time by myself, but Wilcox's poem seems to emphasize the loneliness part of solitude. Yet underlying that loneliness is a sense of self-reliance. If we learn to be strong against life's adversities, then we can survive and achieve a sense of happiness in being by ourselves. It is this dual sense of "solitude" that I tried to capture in my setting of the poem and the ending is vague as it is neither happy nor sad.

To see and hear what is discussed, go to http://www.cooppress.net/fourpoemsblog.html

Dr. B

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Poem 2 Verse 2

Before working on verse 2, I needed to go back and change the audience participation after the word "weep" in verse 1. I was having difficulty coming up with the sound of weeping so for the lack of anything better, I used "boo-hoo". But it has been nagging at me that if I had the audience do this, they would be rolling in the aisles from laughter, not the effect I was looking for! With the help of my wife, I realized that people weep in different ways, so I inserted (sob) in the place of boo-hoo. This way the audience can weep as they wish and may produce a more realistic effect.

I said in my last post that the settings of verse 2 & 3 would most likely be a modified strophic setting of verse 1 as the pattern of the verses seem to be similar. It turned out that my setting of verse 2 was more modified than strophic, especially the 2nd half of the verse. After copying and pasting verse 1 after the interlude, I began to adapt it for verse 2. The first thing I needed to do was transpose it to fit in the tonality of the end of the interlude. The rhythm of the words was also slightly different, so I adjusted that. The biggest changes occured when I reflected the meaning of the text. The word "rejoice" gave rise to a dotted rhythm fanfare figure that permeates the first 4 measures of verse 2. The line "They want full measure.." dictated a meter change to 6/8 rather than 9/8 and a different chromatic lead in than in verse 1. The voice also sustains in place of the spots where the audience participation took place in verse 1. The interlude between the parts of the verse is now staccato, setting up the "Be glad" mood coming up. When the words "There are none" (Referring to no friends when you are sad) are followed by silence, giving the sense of being alone. Silence can be a very effective part of musical expression if not over used. The other big change was having the audience speak the line "But alone you must drink life's gall." I was not planning audience participation at this point, but that dark line did not want to be sung. It sets up the next interlude, which now has more of a minor and dark sound and a slower tempo before brightening a bit at the end. When I begin verse 3, the tempo will remain slow as I wish to upset the dichotomy of the poem by emphasizing the darker side of solitude.

To see and hear what is discussed, go to http://www.cooppress.hostrack.net/fourpoemsblog.html

Dr. B

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Poem 2 Verse 1

Today I finished setting verse 1. I continued from where I left off yesterday by repeating part of the introduction as an interlude. I shortened it, changed its key and put the melody in the flute. I then created the vocal line for the remainder of the verse. On my notes, I though I would have audience involvement on the words "sing" and "sigh", but the melody did not want to be broken up this time by audience participation. I then worked on some of the bass line in the left hand of the piano as between it and the soprano melody, the harmony was being suggested. I tried blocking the chords after an eighth rest on each beat for the piano right hand, but did not like the lack of rhythmic movement. I then switched to arpeggiated 16th notes. These 16th motes are ascending on the more optimistic line of the verse and descending on the pessimistic line. I then added the clarinet line for smoothness and clearer harmony on each beat than provided by the arpeggios. When I got to harmonizing the word "echoes" I knew I wanted a change. Two things resulted that where kind of a surprise and that I really like. I tried to do some word painting by creating an echo of the voice part. I put this first in the flute that resulted in a neat counter-melody that culminates with a flourish on the words "joyful sound". I then tried to echo the flute in the right hand of the piano and found I could carry through this idea throughout the two measures. This technique of carrying an idea through (with slight variation if needed) for as long as you can was suggested by my composition teacher at the University of Arizona, Robert McBride. I have used this technique a lot in my work and it is always a joy to see where it takes me.

After rounding out this part of the verse with the clarinet repeating the last phrase of the voice as I did earlier, I then used the introduction as another interlude that will lead to verse 2. The interlude is the same length as the introduction this time but in a different key and the flute has the melody. It looks like the piece may turn out to be a modified strophic form as the remaining two verses are very similar to the first.

I hope that the reader does not get the sense that my music is contrived. In my dialogue, I constantly refer to the fact that the music suggests where it should as if it has a life of its own. Yet at the same time, I have my bag of tricks (techniques) that I have learned over many years that are effective ways to use both unity and variety simultaneously in my music. The techniques often help me discover where the music wants to go next. My writting about what I have done is all after I have done it, rather than before. I feel that a good composer always lets his/her ear be the guide while drawing upon whatever resources are available to enable unity and variety to be present in the music.

To see and hear what is discussed, go to http://www.cooppress.hostrack.net/fourpoemsblog.html

Dr. B

Monday, August 27, 2007

Beginning poem 2

I actually began working on Ella Wheeler Wilcox's "Solitude" on Friday, but did not have enough written to post. This afternoon I finally was able to get some time to work again. I thought I'd discuss my composing technique in more detail as beginning a piece is usually the most difficult part of composing. The problems arise not so much from getting the original idea, but from knowing where to go after you get the idea.

My original idea came easily as I wanted to compose a pastorale. I selected a moderately slow 9/8 meter and decided to use a clarinet melody to create the mood. The three measure clarinet melody is the result. I next tried to think of how I would harmonize the melody. Very rarely do I use block chords for harmony. I feel that harmony is much more interesting if it is rhythmically motivated and if each voice (part) is allowed to find its own direction from a voice leading standpoint. You will notice that the first time the piano enters is during the sustained clarinet note. It enters arpeggiated with each part sustaining. I then continued with the piano left hand creating a single line that is in contrary motion to the clarinet. The right hand continues the arpeggiation but this time with more rapid chord change. The pattern of sustained chord and arpeggiation continues and alternates bewtween the hands. By the third measure, the right hand of the piano becomes a single line picking up on the two 16th and quarter note motif from the 2nd measure of the clarinet melody. When I am working in a section like the first 3 measures, I work on one hand at a time, find something I like for a beat or two, and then work on the other hand. I try not to get one hand too far ahead of the other as either part can suggest what comes next. When I am at a point when both parts are together, I proceed with the part that seems to be moving onward.

After the three measure introduction, I then composed the vocal line for four measures. Once again, I am trying to involve the audience. The piano part has less of the sustained arpeggiation of the introduction as it has some blocked chords and single lines in alternation. The idea for the 16th note arpeggio in measure 4 came from the audience's laugh but actually occurs before the audience laughs. This is an illustration of how one part can suggest what to use in another part. The two 16th and quarter note motif is still being used but it is transformed into tw0 16ths and two 8ths. I bring in the flute for color variety with the pickups to m. 8 and the clarinet laughs on the word mirth in m. 9. Lastly, the clarinet rounds out the setting of the first three lines by repeating the last measure of the vocal line with a slight variation. The accompaniment also varies its repetition.

I hope that this detailed discussion will illustrate to performers and listeners how intricate the composing process is. It is difficult to discover all these nuances, but as one studies the piece, they should become more apparent on either the conscious or subconscious level. I hope that composers will pick up some ideas on how to work with their material while composing.

To see and hear what is discussed, go to http://www.cooppress.net/fourpoemsblog.html

Dr. B

Friday, August 24, 2007

First Poem Complete

I finished setting the first poem on Wednesday as anticipated, but I didn't post it because I like to get away from the piece for around 24 hours so I can examine it with fresher ears. I found that I added a beat to the rhythm of the sustained note leading into the last fast tempo and I changed the melody and harmony in one spot in this section. I would be interested in hearing anyone's comments regarding the setting of this poem now that it is complete.

While reflecting on this setting, I was reminded of a comment I received in 1980 when the Harrisburg Symphony performed by "Amendment I". This piece was commissioned by the Boise Philharmonic in honor of the U.S. Bicentennial in 1976 and contains a musical representation of the freedoms promised by the first amendment. The critic who reviewed the concert wrote, "Charles Ives did it better". My reaction to this was to think, "no, Charles Ives did it differently". The point I am trying to make is that composers can do one of two things. They can try to write something that has never been written before or they can write music that is likely to invoke prior associations. It is my opinion that some of the trouble with modern music is that newness has been rewarded just because it is new rather than because it is good. I am not against new ideas, but I think new ideas must be included with the traditions that have already been established. I do not shy away from prior associations. I hope that in the beginning of my setting of Whitman's "O Captain! My Captain!", one will envision the stormy sea. If I am compared to Rimsky-Korsakov and "Scheherazade" or other works evoking the stormy sea, so be it. It is my unique way of evoking the stormy sea. The same is true of using the dirge. Other great composers have written dirges. Does that mean I should never write a dirge because someone else did it before? I believe a composer needs to be aware of prior traditions and use what is appropriate for his/her expression. If a composer needs to invent something new to express his/her idea, then that is what should be done. I just object to piece after piece that explores the "new" idea to the exclusion of anything else and then critics and composition competitions tout it as great music. Just some food for thought.

To see and hear the first poem setting, go to http://www.cooppress.net/fourpoemsblog.html

Dr. B

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Verse 2 part 2

Before I began working on verse 2 part 2, I reviewed the piece for tempos. There was something nagging at me while away from the computer with a feeling that parts of the piece sound too frantic. I reduced the tempo in part 1 of both verses from 156 to 148. I left the introduction at 156. I like this better as the mood is slightly calmer and there is more time for the flute commentary to come out cleanly.

Part 2 of verse 2 was slow-going. I had trouble finding just the right harmony and rhythm. Once I found what I was looking for, every note and rhythm had to be absolutely perfect. This may sound strange because composers do want every note to be the right one, but in faster more complex sections, I find this is less critical than in slow exposed sections. It was painstaking to do this, but I am pleased with the results. I can also envision the rest of the piece. I won't say much more now except to say that there comes a point in composing that enough has been written that all becomes clear. I am now at that point and expect that I should be able to finish the movement tomorrow.

One other thing surprised me. I originally thought that there would be a clear distinction between the end of verse 2 and the beginning of verse 3. That did not occur. Instead, the mood change will take place on line 3 of the 3rd verse. The formal structure of the poem does not always match the formal structure of the music. I guess that is what we call "artistic freedom" just like when I changed the order of Whitman's words to suggest an ambiguity that complimented the music. I feel that when setting poetry that "artistic freedom" is essential and a composer should not be bound by using the structure or words exactly. You will also notice I repeated a phrase or two of Whitman's poem for this reason.

To see and hear what I have written thus far, go to http://www.cooppress.net/fourpoemsblog.html

Dr. B

Monday, August 20, 2007

Verse 2 part 1

Today was sort of a trial and error day. I thought that I could use the same material from the first part of verse one and just changed the words, but that did not work. It felt too abrupt and the wrong mood. So then I continued to develop the flute and clarinet interlude and after four measures, I started to hear the soprano coming in with the words "my captain". I thought this would be a reflection back to the first verse of realizing that his captain is dead, but it turned out to be the start of the 2nd verse as well. I need to extend my apologies to Whitman hear as I changed the order of his words in order to accomplish both the reflection back to verse one and the start of the new verse (my captain O captain in stead of O captain my captain). I was then able to bring back the material from the first verse (down a step) but it picks up a scherzando feel with the staccato in the piano and the short notes in the soprano. The melody, harmony, and accompaniment are also altered to reflect the words of the 2nd verse. I expect the last 8 measures or so to change as I move into the last part of the verse tomorrow.

This log is helpful to me as a composer as I am often asked how long did it take to write the piece and I really do not recall. I work for an hour or two each day. Since this is my eighth post, I have around 15 hours invested in the piece for around 2 minutes of music. This does not count the time ideas are going around in my head while not sitting at the keyboard and computer. A lot of things get suggested and resolved in this fashion which makes my work easier when at the computer. I would recommend all composers keep a written log as they write. It certainly helps when asked to talk about your piece and also forces you understand and account for why you did what you did. I am finding it a beneficial learning process.

To see and hear what I have written thus far, go to http://www.cooppress.net/fourpoemsblog.html

Dr. B

Saturday, August 18, 2007

2nd part of verse 1

This section proceeded easier than I thought it would as it turned out to be like writing a recitative. There is minimal accompaniment and spoken text, first by the soprano and then the audience being lead by the soprano. In a concert setting, this spot should be rehearsed once or twice with the audience prior to performance. The words would need to be printed in the program. While the rhythms are fairly simple, I wish I knew how to make the words appear on the screen with a bouncing ball above the words. I'll have to try to see if Power Point can do this. If anyone has a suggestion how this could work, please let me know.

This composing session ended with my working on the transition to the second verse. It is interesting to note that Whitman ends each verse with the words "Fallen cold and dead" but it is not until verse three that the narrator actual believes that the captain (his father) is actually dead. This doubt is expressed in my transition by the uncertain intervals in the flute and clarinet parts.

On weekends, I try to take a little break from composing as I find I work better when getting away from music for short periods of time. Does anyone else work this way?

To see and hear what I have written thus far, go to http://www.cooppress.net/fourpoemsblog.html

Dr. B

Friday, August 17, 2007

First Section of First Verse

Today I finished the first section of the first verse of O Captain! My Captain! The vocal line came easily as the words suggested the rhythm and direction of the line. I continued the stormy 6/8 rhythmic feel for the accompaniment, however I did vary the pattern several times. The first usage was continuous eighth notes in the piano broken up between the two hands with the clarinet added a bit later on the first beat when the piano varies the pattern (right hand on beat 1 and left hand on beat 2). The flute inserts commentary when the voice rests. The next variation is the eighth notes creating a four measure sweep from low piano to high flute and back down again. The last variation is the clarinet playing the eighth notes while the piano plays chords. My harmony in this section is mainly minor triads with occasional diminished chords and suggestions of chords in fourths. It has a strong modal flavor. The dynamics are important in bringing out the drama of the line. This section fades away into the next section where I will incorporate the audience speaking the words. It will be interesting to see if that works. To see and hear what I have written thus far, go to http://www.cooppress.net/fourpoemsblog.html

Dr. B

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Developing the introduction

During the past two days, I have been working on the introductory section. I mentioned in my previous post that the music tells me where to go next. The way that I accomplish this is through my constant awareness of unity and variety. For example, I listened to my first six measures and asked myself does the music need a repetition or change. It told me it needed a repetition. Very rarely are my repetitions literal. In this instance, my repetition is sequential being down a half step and it is also extended and changed at the end. My ear then told me we were ready for some variety and the variety it suggested was rhythmic, therefore accounting for the duplets. What surprised me as I was composing was the need to use the voice at this point. I was planning to save the voice for the text, but I kept hearing a chromatic line as if sirens (sea nymphs) were calling the ship to destruction on the rocks. This section provided a nice contrast to my opening two phrases, while the 6/8 feel in the flute and clarinet provided unity. I then transitioned into the setting of the text by sequencing and fragmenting part of the opening material along with lessening dynamics. To see and hear what I have written thus far, go to http://www.cooppress.net/fourpoemsblog.html

Dr. B

Monday, August 13, 2007

Composing the Initial Idea

One of the most difficult parts of composing is getting started. Because this piece involves the setting of text and I have a general idea of what I would like to do, getting started is a little easier. I know, for instance, that I want to begin fast and stormy. I started with a 6/8 meter because the triple feel of the meter sugests the rolling of the waves. I also wanted a very unsettled feel for the beginning so I chose a lot of diminished 7th chords and other dissonant intervals. With this in mind, I created an opening statement of 6 measures. I think the idea suits what I intended well. Where it goes from here, will be suggested to me by the music. I am looking to set a mood at the beginning of the piece to lead into the opening lines of the poem. My future posts will discuss how I arrived to that point. To see and hear what I have written this far, go to http://www.cooppress.net/fourpoemsblog.html

Dr. B

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Planning the piece

A lot of people think that composing music is something that happens through divine inspiration. While it can occur that way and there have been a few times where I had no idea where the ideas were coming from and I just felt like a vehicle for a greater power, for the most part, composing requires making constant decisions. In the piece I am working on for Conundrum, the parameters of creating a piece that can be used in both an educational and concert setting has been a source of inspiration for both selecting the poems and how I plan to set them to music. This morning, I was able to select the order of the poems and outline the mood and audience involvement that will take place. Here is what I have come up with:
I. Whitman - O Captain! My Captain!
Verse 1 part 1 - Fast and stormy
Verse 1 part 2 - slower tempo - audience speaks "But O heart! Heart ! heart! O bleeding
drops of red"
Verse 2 part 1 - Fast and triumphant
Verse 2 part 2 - slower
Verse 3 part 1 - dirgelike
Verse 3 part 2 - Triumphant music again - audience speaks "Exult O shores, and ring O
bells! - return to dirge for end of poem
II. Wilcox - Solitude - The mood of this setting will be like a pastorale. the audience will be involved by doing sounds in place of the words "laugh", "weep", "sing" and "sigh".
III. Poe - Annabel Lee
Verses 1 & 2 - lilting - major
Verses 3 & 4 - minor
Verse 5 - angrier
Verse 6 - major and wistful
Verse 7 - involved audience by saying the line "Of the beautiful Annabel Lee" and by
doing wave sounds at the end
IV. Frost - The Road Not Taken - Music to create a traveling mood - the audience will say three lines from verse 4 and also sigh in place of the word "sigh".

I am sharing all this here because it is important to realize that sometimes a lot of general planning goes into creating a piece of music before a note is written. Things may change as I start writing the piece, but I now have a departure point and a general idea of how I will go about writing the music. It will be interesting to see how well this plan holds up as the piece unfolds.

Dr. B

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Selecting the poems

Today I selected 10 poems that appealed to me from the volume mentioned yesterday and from another anthology, "Poems That Live Forever" selected by Hazel Fellerman. I then narrowed the 10 down to 4; Robert Frost - The Road Not Taken, Walt Whitman - Captain, O Captain, Edgar Allen Poe - Annabelle Lee, and Ella Wilcox - Solitude. These poems seem to be the appropriate length and are contrasting enough to provide variety. The challenge of having audience participation is not clear to me at this time nor is the order of the poems. I had a thought the audience might do some sound effects in appropriate places as well as recite some of the lines. I am looking forward to getting started on these but it may not occur until next week as I am still busy formatting parts. By the way, I use Sibelius 5 software. While I'm formatting parts, I am using the new "insert cue" function. It is neat but it does strange things like when inserting a cue in an F Horn part, it transposes the cue up a fifth. The cues are being used to help the musicians find their entrances rather than to cover missing parts so transposing actually makes the cues harder to read. I have to transpose them back to concert pitch manually. I'm sure this funstion will improve in the future. My hope is that by inserting cues, both the reading and performance will be better.

Dr. B

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Starting a new piece

While I am formatting the parts for a piece I just completed for the Washington Sinfonietta called "Legacy" which deals with the global warming issue, I am starting to think about my next composition. It is being composed for the chamber ensemble Conundrum from Cincinnati, OH. The ensemble consists of soprano, flute, clarinet and piano. They would like a piece that can be used as educational outreach as well as for concert purposes. They would like it to tap into literary works students may have studied in school so I got out a book I had on the shelves called "An Anthology of American Poetry". I am in the process of selecting some poems that inspire me. In addition for having the soprano singing the words, I am thinking of having places where the audience would recite parts of the poems while the instruments play. I would project the words similar to Karaoke. I think this would be an affective way to engage the audience. More on all this once I selected the poems.

Dr. B