Thursday, February 10, 2011

Every Piece Has a Beginning

I guess I should start things off by introducing myself. My name is Nathan, and I'm a student of Music Composition. This means I am writing music (of the classical variety) constantly - if not every day, then at least several times a week. Sometimes I'm successful and the notes come easilly. Sometimes I fail and erase everything I've slaved over to start anew. The process is not unlike that of a painter or a sculptor. Sometimes every stroke is perfect, every press of the hands, every hammer of the chisel precise and accurate. Other times, the painter realizes the canvas is just a block of red, or the sculptor realizes the head of his work is going to fall off because the neck is too slender. So it is with music - occasionally I realize the notes I've put down just don't belong, as if I've taken measures from the wrong pieces and dropped them in accidentally.

That being said, starting a new piece is often the hardest part of the process - harder even than making sure that the climax is just right, that the finale is appropriate. There are just so many choices for a work: instrumentation, meter, mood, key, difficulty, type, form... Sometimes it can get rather overwhelming. I'm lucky so far in that everything I've written that has actually been finished has been assigned to me in one way or another, be it by my professor or by commission. As a result I generally know the instrumentation, meter, and as of late, the form. However, that has changed as of late, and that gives me opportunity to speak on some of the new challenges I've faced.

What am I writing?

For my most recent completed assignment, I was originally tasked with writing a formal work (that is, a work with a definite and predetermined form). I was walked through an example piece (a rather unusual Mozart sonata) and then tasked with duplicating the form as closely as possible while still creating a completely original work. The piece was for solo piano, so I immediately gravitated toward having the piano as part of my overall instrumentation. The choice, then, was what to pair with it, if anything at all. I'm a violist - I've been playing since the 4th grade, so I'm at home with the viola and, by extension, with harmony. Violas generally get the "filling" parts in music - the middle notes of chords, the syncopation (off-beats), the driving, metronomic rhythm. We're usually tasked with more of a harmonic roll than a melodic one. That is, the violins usually play the parts you can hum whereas the violas are the ones that are making the piece sound "whole" and "full bodied" as opposed to empty.

Take, for example, Ode to Joy. Heck, just take the choir's part. I'm sure almost everybody out there can hum at least 5-10 seconds of the melody. When you're humming it, you know there's more to it than what your voice can create at once. You're humming what everyone knows, what everyone hears, but it still sounds somewhat simple and hollow. The rest of the choir that doesn't get to sing what you are right now is tasked with the harmony. They create the bottom and the middle of the phrase, give it body, fill out the chords. That's what the violas do most of the time.

Now, all of that rambling does, indeed, have a point. When I compose, I tend to think very simply, melodically, because I have the harmonic view in my mind. When I write solo parts they tend to be harmonically interesting but technically very simple and, sometimes, melodically simple as well. As a result I gravitate toward the easiest instrument available that can play beautiful and complex harmonies - the piano. When I write without that, I have quite a bit of difficulty. Luckilly, for this piece, I didn't have to worry about that - piano was a given. Since I hadn't written for my own instrument yet, I decided to marry two harmonic instruments and create a sonata for viola and piano.

I apologise for the rambling of that entry, but it made sense in my head. Anyway, carrying on...

What kind of piece is it?

Since the issue of form has been answered right off the bat - Sonata (or, Sonata-Allegro for those of you that prefer the full name (or even First Movement Form - hey, more trivia for those of you keeping score)) - and instrumentation has now been decided upon - Viola and Piano - I'm now tasked with figuring out what kind of piece I will ultimately compose. Will it be happy? Sad? Will it tell a story, or will it simply exist for its own sake? Will it be simple, or dramatic? Will it be rhythmically easy, or complex? All of these questions, believe it or not, are answered in my mind within about 5 minutes of sitting down.

Now, as a brief aside, I am a little unusual from what I've learned in how I write my music. Many composers like to take their instrument(s) of choice and fiddle around a bit until they develop a melody that they like, then they run with that. A violist would diddle around for a little while, a pianist would hammer out some interesting chord progressions with some improvised melodies over the top, and a piece would slowly bloom from that. My mind works very differently - I am not a performer. I enjoy playing as part of an orchestra, but I do not at all enjoy performing solo, nor do I enjoy playing my instrument at all without a sheet of music in front of me. I do not emphasize my own performance abilities (or lack thereof), nor do I have any inclination to. Instead, what I do is sit in front of my computer, load up Finale (Sibelius is the other program many people use and it has its merits, but I tend to stick with Finale at the moment), and then start to answer my questions from there, one by one.

One: What is my instrumentation? In this case, viola/piano, as has been discussed ad nausem already.
Two: What is my key signature? Typically, I just leave this as C Major unless I already have an idea for a mood in my head. If I do, I typically gravitate toward A, C, and E minor keys. I prefer not to write too much in major keys - at least, not to start off a piece.
Three: What is my time signature? This is, honestly, where the piece really begins to take shape.

To answer this question, I have to have some sort of idea of complexity. Do I want a standard 4/4 time signature that anyone can follow, or do I want to excite the ears with a cacophony of accents and sounds at unexpected times? For my sonata, I chose to go with the rhythmically complex and exciting time signature of 5/8. This gives me two accented beats and three unaccented to play with. It also serves to drive the piece forward, not letting it rest anywhere for very long. Considering the piece I was emulating, the form I was looking at, and the idea I had in mind, this was perfect. 7/8 would have been far too long winded, and anything in a simple meter (4/4, 3/4, etc. is referred to as simple, 6/8, 5/8, etc. is referred to as compound) would have been both too long winded and too stable.

Four: How fast is it? I need to set a tempo for every piece before I even begin. This isn't always the final tempo, but it's at least a start.

Typically I'll approximate what I want, plug that in, and adjust it a little bit after the first measure is in, but I'm generally close to the mark when I begin. For this piece, since it was in such a complicated meter, I needed to give the time in eighth notes, which wound up being about 270 beats per minute. That sounds like a lot, but keep in mind these are eighth notes, so the piece winds up being no faster than a brisk walk, really (alright, that's the best analogy I can draw for this tempo/meter... I tried, honestly).

Five: Put something down already! At this point, I have to start putting down the notes themselves. This is where the idea in my head is either made, or broken.

This piece had what my professor and I referred to as an "opening shout." It was two measures of music completely unrelated to the melodic ideas that followed and served to get the listener's attention quickly and hold onto it. The "shout" comes back many times in the piece (and, in fact, is the focus of the development, but I'll get to that in a later entry), so it needs to be something that can be made interesting. I chose something very simple - in 10 beats total, I played three loud, jarring chords in the piano. I used a technique called polytonality. I had the left hand playing a chord in one key and the right hand playing a chord in another. The first polychord was fairly consonant (meaning that it was pleasing to the ear, not too jarring). The second had another note (and, therefore, was louder without having to strike the keys any harder) and was a little dissonant. The third polychord was repeated twice, had yet another note, and was the most dissonant of the bunch.

After that opening shout is complete, the piece starts to take shape. I'll describe the process and pitfalls of putting the real meat of the opening in my next entry. Until then, I hope you enjoyed reading!