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.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Definition of Music

During my tour, I have been lecturing about the future of artistic music in the 21st Century and as part of that lecture, I ask my audience what their definition of music is. The number of music students who haven’t thought deeply about this and generally accept John Cage’s definition of “organized sound” without much questioning surprises me. Cage’s definition is good, as it is very inclusive, but in my mind only addresses the craft aspect of music. In my opinion, a good definition of music needs to include the emotional as well as the intellectual side of the art.

The best definition I have found comes from Jon Winsor. In his book, “Breaking The Sound Barrier: An Argument for Mainstream Literary Music”, he says, “Music is the use of sound to represent biological rhythm”. By this he means that music should have both the tensions and relaxations that are present in life. All elements of music can have these tensions and relaxations and when the elements work together symbiotically, the emotional impact is usually strongest. When composers isolate the musical elements and focus on just one or two, in my opinion, the emotional impact is weakened. For example, a composition that is concerned mainly with timbre and does not concern itself with the biological rhythm of melody, harmony, counterpoint, rhythm, etc., leaves an audience cold regarding the musical expression. The piece may be logically conceived, but other than the changing timbres, there is not much interest.

Leonard Bernstein, in his Norton Lectures at Harvard University in 1973, uses language as a way of explaining music. In one of his experiments, he equates a noun or noun phrase with a musical motif or theme. An adjective would be equated with a chordal modifier and a verb with rhythm. In order for language to make syntactical sense and have semantic communication, at least these three language components must be present. For example, “The long (adjective) hours (noun) drag (verb) on.” If a sentence only has one of these components, for example nouns, the sentence may be colorful, but lacks meaning (example: hours, days, minutes, years, weeks) and certainly a clear emotional impact. The same is true with music if melody, tonality, harmonic progression, counterpoint, are minimized or eliminated in favor of timbre.

I found myself totally mystified by what some academic composers consider music at a recital of 21st century music that was presented at a recent conference. While I appreciate the craftsmanship that goes into these compositions, the emphasis on timbre at the expense of logical development of other elements left me cold. In addition, the heavy use of dissonance and tone clusters also inhibited the listener from feeling humanly connected, as these types of sounds appear only in the upper reaches of the overtone series where they are technically present, but not audible by the human ear.

Robert Ehle in his article “From Sound To Silence: The Classical Tradition and the Avant-Garde” Music Educators Journal, March, 1979, states that “the quest for new ideas without old associations has led to the abandonment of music as sound in favor of music as pure idea.” Roland Nadeau in his article “The Crisis of Tonality: What is the Avant-Garde?” Music Educators Journal, March, 1981, illustrates how composers have systematically eliminated each aspect of music culminating in John Cage’s “4:33” where composed sounds no longer occurred. Perhaps the next step is the elimination of the audience itself? Some food for thought.

Monday, March 21, 2011

American Vignettes for Brass Quintet Movement 6

I finished the final movement of American Vignettes. It is called "Harlem Jump." Once again, I used a movement from previous composition as the basis of this movement. It comes from my "Three Jazzy Pieces" that exists as a mixed trio. I expanded it to a brass quintet by adding harmonies and featuring each musician as a soloist.

The design of the written out solos is to sound like improvised solos. It is interesting how I composed these solos. Normally solos are played over the existing chord changes of the tune. In this instance, the tune is mainly linear (contrapuntal) and not so much vertical (harmonic), therefore the chord progression (if one exists from the sum of the lines) is secondary. When I composed the solo sections, I just composed a line that sounded interesting melodically without any regard to chord progression. I then built a bass line and added riffs to fit with the solo line.

Variations in the texture, instrumentation, tonality, and dynamics of the returning head create interest.

When composing this movement and thinking of its title, I felt a need to change some of the titles of the other movements to make then more geographically inclusive, therefore Hoedown became Barn Dance and Southwest became Fiesta.

To see and hear what I have discussed, go to http://www.cooppress.net/american_vignettes_blog.html. You will be viewing a transposed score.

As always, your comments are appreciated.

Dr. B

Saturday, March 12, 2011

American Vignettes for Brass Quintet Movement 5

During my travels, I have been using the first movement of a composition I wrote for tuba and piano to demonstrate unity and variety in music. The piece is called American Fantasy and is based on America the Beautiful. My plan for the fifth movement of American Vignettes was to do a French Horn feature using America the Beautiful and when I sat down to work on this movement, I couldn’t get the tuba and piano piece out of my mind. Maybe that was an omen because I ended up adapting the tuba and piano version for the French Horn feature within the brass quintet.

Since the Horn is the middle voice of the brass quintet, my biggest challenge was to be sure the Horn would be heard over the accompaniment in the other brass instruments. Putting the other brasses in ranges where they could be played soft enough for the Horn to project alleviated most of this concern. The Horn range was also as concern as it plays in the low/middle register a lot where it does not project very strongly. I considered changing key, but decided to leave things where they are, otherwise the upper register Horn parts would get too high.

There was one section that recurs often where I changed from Horn solo to ensemble playing. It is the figure in measure 12 and similar measures. The Horn melody just got lost in the brass harmony so the first trumpet now has the melody.

I also have a concern over whether the trumpets can sound ethereal in measures 6-8, as it is in a high tessitura at a soft dynamic. I believe strong musicians can play with the type of control required to pull this off.

Jazz influences both sections of this movement. The slow section uses jazz harmony constructed of enlarged chords and substitute chords. It also uses syncopation not present in the melody of America the Beautiful. The second section is a jazz waltz. A motif from America the Beautiful becomes the basis for the minor jazz waltz theme. A lot free material follows the motif, but this idea occurs a lot and is used in imitation later in the movement. Longer segments of America the Beautiful also occur throughout the movement.

To see and hear what I have discussed, go to http://www.cooppress.net/american_vignettes_blog.html. You will be viewing a transposed score.

As always, your comments are appreciated.

Dr. B

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

American Vignettes for Brass Quintet Movement 4

Movement 4 is a trombone feature and represents the Southwest. The Southwestern flavor is accomplished through alternating 6/8 and 3/4 and the bright colors of the muted brass playing staccato eighth note rhythms and "ay" sounding motifs. The tonality and melody are also very traditional and once again I was looking for ways to spice it up a little without destroying the folk nature of the movement. I varied the meter by changing to 4/4 or 5/4 where one expects to hear 3/4. I inserted some chromaticism to add variety to the melody. I even slightly changed the melody when it repeats for some variety and use contrapuntal lines often. Another technique I used was a canon at measure 30. I also used an augmented triad as a substitute for a V7 in some places.

The form of this movement is like a verse-chorus. I think of the 3/4, 6/8 alternation as the verse and the straight 3/4 as the chorus. The chorus contains the more attractive melody and I use that more often than the verse.

To see and hear what I have discussed, go to http://www.cooppress.net/american_vignettes_blog.html. You will be viewing a transposed score.

As always, your comments are appreciated.

Dr. B

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

American Vignettes for Brass Quintet Movement 3

Movement 3 is the tuba feature and is called "Spirituals". I use three different spirituals in this movement, "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen". "Cotton Needs Picking" and "Every Time I Feel the Spirit." When I work with folk music that is so direct in its communication, I find it difficult to change the music too much because it looses its feel. My tendency then is combine tunes to make something unique.

The movement begins with the solo tuba doing the chorus of "Nobody Knows". The tuba is unaccompanied until measure 4 where the Horn enters with a counter-melody of my own. Measure 4 is stretched into a 5/4 measure for variety. Measure 8 is a 6/4 bar to end the introduction and accommodate the pick-ups of "Every Time." This is now in an Allegro tempo with a double time feel as the trombone plays an eighth note bass line. At M. 17 the Horn then the trumpet plays the verse of "Every Time" with the tuba filling in on long notes. M. 25 is an elaborated version of the tune in the tuba.

At M 33, I alternate phrases between the trumpets and tuba using the verse of "Nobody Knows." I alternate the harmony between major and minor in the trumpets and write a technical flourish for the tuba. M. 41 is similar but up a whole step.

After a two measure vamp at M 49, the tuba plays the chorus of "Cotton" in a call and response manner with the other brass. The roles reverse at M 59 with the tuba shouting in the upper register. This section modulates and incorporates a swing feel. The tuba has the final say in the manner of a cadenza.

To see and hear what I have discussed, go to http://www.cooppress.net/american_vignettes_blog.html. You will be viewing a transposed score.

As always, your comments are appreciated.

Dr. B