Sunday, February 23, 2014

Listening is linear. Composing isn’t.

In a typical live concert, audience members experience a piece of music as a linear event. There’s no going back to listen to an earlier spot, no lingering over a particularly catchy chord. My experience as a composer is quite different. Over the course of my career, I’ve perhaps composed two or three pieces in which I sat down at a piano and wrote the work from one end to the other without stopping. It is far more common for me to work on multiple sections simultaneously, skipping back and forth throughout the piece as I work. 

This approach works well for me for several reasons. First, it allows for musical ideas that occur throughout an entire piece to be developed at more or less the same time. I can introduce a brief version of a motive early in the piece; I can grow it throughout the main body; I can use it triumphantly at the high point, and then bring it back as a whimper in the finals notes of the piece.  For a work with a longer duration, I am able to develop multiple movements at once that share some aspect of a motive. For instance, in the large-scale oratorio that I’m currently writing, I am finding it useful to work on ideas for multiple movements of the piece simultaneously. This allows me to devise a few main motives that will be used in a variety of ways throughout the entire oratorio. This approach is also helpful if I get stuck on a particular spot – I can jump to another part of the piece and keep working.

The key to a non-linear approach is staying flexible. I tend to initially work with pencil and paper and eventually switch over to a computer once my sketches are detailed enough. With pencil and paper, it is easy to not get too attached to anything I put down, as the score at this stage usually looks like a hot mess, with musical ideas scribbled all over the place. But with a good computer notation program, you can be seduced into thinking you're much closer to a final product than you really are, as the music looks so neatly engraved on the screen and sounds like music when you hit the playback button. I avoid the siren call of the computer for as long as I can; when I finally switch over to notating within Sibelius, I don’t get too committed to any music I put into the program until much further into the process.

Another key is to think organically. When I write a musical idea that constitutes the opening of a piece, I try to simplify it. Does the piece really begin four to eight measures earlier than I think it does? Perhaps even sixteen measures before my current point of entry? The same organic approach applies to the climax of a piece. Sometimes I’ve worked on building material into a high point for so long that I think the section lasts much longer than it actually does (it is hard to listen with fresh, objective ears). I also find that once I reach a high point, I can experiment to see if the music can momentarily stabilize and withstand one more organic push to reach an even higher point than I first imagined. J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, has this approach down extremely well. When she gets to a structural high point of her story, instead of peaking and letting the tension fall away, she turns the high point into a plateau to which she adds more material that climbs to yet another high point. 

Sometimes, after working out of order for most of a piece’s construction, I find it surprising to finally hear it in order at the piece’s premiere. After a while, my ears adjust, and then I can’t hear the piece any other way.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Beginning Terra Nostra: An Oratorio

I am currently working on a project two and a half years in the making, and it is the largest undertaking of my career.  In September of 2011, Robert Geary (the conductor of the San Francisco Choral Society, Volti, and the Piedmont East Bay Children’s Choir) asked if I were to compose an oratorio, what would it be about?  At the time, Bob and I were at the Volti Choral Institute for High School Singers in Occidental, California.  Students from four local high schools were gathered together for a fun weekend of singing alongside choristers from Volti; they were rehearsing one of my Millay sonnet sets that the combined choruses would perform a month or so later in a concert in San Francisco.  Perhaps it was because we were surrounded by gorgeous redwood trees in the middle of wilderness, or maybe because I had recently composed a string quartet based on Gaia (the personification of the earth in Greek mythology) and felt that I had more to say on that subject—whatever the reason, by the end of our three day institute, I pitched to Bob the basic concept of an oratorio in three parts that celebrates the planet, the rise of humanity, and the search for a balance between the earth and mankind.  He liked it, and I sent him a fleshed-out formal proposal after the institute.  It took about a year from that point to be approved by the San Francisco Choral Society and a commissioning contract to be formulated; the Piedmont East Bay Children’s Choir also came aboard as joint commissioners.  By January 2013, all of the paperwork was in place, and I was green-lighted to commence the project.

The size of the oratorio will be physically big.  I am scoring it for four soloists, the San Francisco Choral Society, one of the choirs in the Piedmont East Bay Children’s Choir, string orchestra, piano, and three percussionists.  It is also big in duration, containing three parts that will be approximately 20 minutes each for a total duration of an hour.  The parts will receive staggered premieres, with the first part premiering in November 2014, the second part in April 2015, and all three combined parts in November 2015. 

Additionally, the oratorio is big in scope, involving approximately 22 texts.  I searched a diverse variety of writings for about eight months, and crafted the libretto from a wide range of sources and writers: creation myths from four continents, a passage from the Book of Genesis, verses about the European Industrial Age, writings by John Muir and Walt Whitman, and poetry by Lord Alfred Tennyson, William Woodsworth, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Carl Sandburg, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Edna St. Vincent Millay among others.  Some of the passages I use will be short excerpts, some will be set in full; some might not survive the composing process and be left out.  At the moment, I am still waiting for permission on two copyrighted texts.  I will dedicate a future blog to the topic of copyright permissions; for now, suffice it to say that it can be a long, multi-month process that requires a lot of patience.  I have not been successful in securing all of the texts that I wanted, but in my months and months of researching texts, I discovered several poems that can take the place of my first choices if need be.

So here I am, two and a half years after Bob’s and my first conversation.  I’m starting to put notes on score paper for part 1.  Bob and the San Francisco Choral Society are firming up details on their end, such as choosing soloists (it will be useful to know the singers’ ranges as I compose), what percussion instruments will be available (another detail that will impact my composing), and where the performances will take place.  The scores for part 1 will be due in late summer, with deadlines for the second and third parts spaced out over the next year.  I’ll periodically return to writing posts about the oratorio, from its composing process to the rehearsal stages and premiere performances.

Am I nervous?  Heck yeah!  And excited too.  This is the biggest opportunity I’ve had thus far in my career, and I intend to enjoy every moment of it.