Frustrations, Inspirations, and an Arguably Terrible Decision

It's been a roller-coaster of emotions for composing and music-making these past few weeks. With multiple projects going on, I'm sure it won't be the last week like this, either!

Harp Piece Update

The work has now officially been submitted for the competition - huzzah! Now that the deadline has passed, I'm happy to share a few excerpts from the piece. 
Example 1: Near the beginning of the work, demonstrating
a mix of standard timbres and techniques.

This first excerpt is towards the beginning of the work. Early on in writing the piece, I challenged myself to try and recontextualize standard techniques to create a unique soundworld - one removed from stereotypical harp music, but still recalling those traditions (only to obliterate them later on). I play with several different types of techniques here. 

First, arpeggiated clusters. It's standard performance practice for harpists to arpeggiate any cluster with three notes or more upwards. I mess with this in several ways. In bar 9, we see two clusters with an indicated to arpeggiate them inwards towards each other, followed by a downward arpeggiation, and then a non-arpeggiated sonority. Bar 11 (top staff) shows another variation type which features heavily throughout the work - varied speeds of arpeggiation. These variations become exaggerated throughout the rest of the piece.

Example 2: Melodic Pedal Slides
Another technique which is played with prominently in this work is the pedal slide technique. A big feature in the piece is using this technique rhythmically. What starts at rehearsal letter B (a harmonized, rhythmic pedal slide inflection), becomes varied with every appearance. Measure 18 is the first demonstration of polyphonic opportunity - that is, while there are, yet again, two pedals being changed, more than two notes are struck; this creates a sustain of one pitch even as others move around it in this inflection-type motive. Plucking the strings is a very different sound than sliding around them, and this is directly juxtaposed in the last measure of the excerpt - where one pitch is slid, and the harmony is plucked. Eventually, this technique gets used melodically (Example 2). Originally this section was all notated as plucked pitches (with the neighbor tones a whole step away instead of a half step), but with such a high tempo, the section ultimately lacked resonance and was extremely difficult to play. Rather than making it an unrewarding problem section, I decided to make this part a feature of the piece, and turned all of the stepwise-motion figures into pedal slide inflections. It took some rehearsals with harpists to get the right amount of reinforcement in the upper octaves (where pedal slides can simply dampen the strings), but this section now offers a unique color  to (and unconventional use of) a very standard technique.

Example 3: Fingernail glisses. Fingernail glisses 
Another goal I had for this piece was to create some sections in which the harp defies the stereotypical harp associations - pretty, chordal, diatonic, etc. - to try and elicit new vocabulary for an instrument which is too often pigen-holed. I wanted the listener to think of adjectives like "decimating," "violent," and "harsh." I really wanted to elicit strength, dissonance, and rawness from the harp, so the climax of the piece (only some of which is shown here)  utilizes a unique pedal setting - one in which (among other harmonically interesting features) E and F, and C and B, effectively switch places thanks to enharmonic pedals. This creates an unusual, jagged texture during glissandos, as each creates a small "hiccup" in the overall line due to the sudden reversal of pitches. In addition to the harmony, this section also features violent fingernail glisses--here given only an approximate range, in order to free the harpist to strike the strings with abandon instead of within the tentative context of needing to strike a specific group of notes. By contrasting fingernail vs. normale glisses, gliss direction, glisses vs. thunder smacks, using differing gliss sizes and ranges, as well as sometimes utilizing multiple-finger glissandi, this section becomes a powerful, colorful, and ultimately violent climax to the piece, playing on harp norms as much as it is obfuscating them.

The tricky thing now is getting someone to record it by the end of the month - I've been working a lot of different harpists on this project, and unfortunately this month is very busy for everyone. These non-musical parts of being a composer can be frustrating, and sometimes even heart-breaking, but we get through it all for the love of our craft. So a-e-mailing I shall go!

Fat-Ass Problems

A titch theatrical, no?
As much fun as I've been having working on this piece, the work has started to give me some trouble. Part of the problem is that I haven't heard much of it yet, so it's difficult to know if I'm going in the right direction.
Big-Ass Moth! is so much more melodic/linear than Fat-Ass Robin! is turning out to be - a lot of the sounds so far are a little more theatrical/programmatic than I was intending, so I'm starting to wonder if I may need to rethink a few of the gestures, or if the contrast will ultimately make the work stronger as a whole. On the one hand, I strongly believe in having some of these more theatrical gestures - just as Big-Ass Moth! has its scream/footstomps, so too Fat-Ass Robin will need a little help from outside the instruments to stay in the character of the piece. In a way, the "labored breath"s and slap tongues are almost a pp version of the footstomps which come later, so they help create a nice point-of-departure for the piece. Also, having all of these effects may help with the suite as a whole, in that the middle movement can be more of mix of these gestures, where this first movement is simply more directly theatrical and the last more abstractly so. However, these effects need to be organized in a cohesive, sensible way - not just haphazardly thrown together.

Trying to make these decisions is always a difficult process, but at a certain point you just have to make them and see how it turns out. Worse-case scenario is I start over with a lot of material to choose from!

My Arguably Terrible Decision

Usually, when I try to say "no" to things, it comes out as "no problem" - it's something I've been working hard to address, and to be honest, it has been getting better. This last week I had about five people ask me to play percussion on a few concerts, and I was able to tell all of them "no" eventually. Turning down composition projects is a little more difficult for me, however.

So, I'm now working a piece for solo viola and piano. It's due in two weeks. But, so far, the piece is actually coming together really yay!!...?

4/4 can sound complex after mixed meters, right?
The person I'm doing this for has a recital coming up really soon, and is doing a concert of female-only composers, and really wanted a work from an IU composer. There are only six or seven female composers (in a department of about fifty-five composers, but this is another conversation), and it's great to have the chance to contribute to an under-represented instrument -- violas so often get stuck with violin or cello rep, so it's really a fun challenge to work with this instrument. I met with the violist earlier this week, and we talked for quite a long time about what kind of piece she may want. I work better with restrictions, and knowing the rest of her program was really helpful.

Also, my teacher has wanted me to work on using less down-beat based rhythmic language and start working with more complex meters, so this piece is a great opportunity for me to break out and just work on those things. Also the piece needs to be under five-minutes, so it's not a totally unrealistic goal.

I'm rationalizing. I definitely should have said "no." But I didn't. So now the only thing I can do is justify it by writing a really good piece, and not letting any of my other projects suffer. As long as I do that, this won't be a mistake, right?

Silly Songs Make Serious Impact

Poster for the event - these kids are so silly!
One of the undergraduate students has been extremely ambitious the past two years he's been here, and continues to impress the other composers/faculty with these large-scale extra concerts/recitals he puts together. Last year he put together an orchestra concert, a string quartet concert, and a choral concert with pieces by several undergraduate students programmed. This semester he's continuing these projects (now including even more works by his fellow undergrads) and put together a "Silly Art Song" concert. There were about 10 pieces on the program, mostly composed by sophomores and juniors in the department, for voice and piano (a few had another instrument, but most were simply piano-vocal); most of them wrote their own texts, too, really bringing their individual personalities out in a big way. One song was about an octopus who was sad because she never got to eat any cookies, another was about another composer's cat (Bingo), or a satirical re-telling of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. As you can see, there was a large variety in this recital! I almost didn't go because I've been so busy, but I got myself there, and I am so happy I did.

The undergraduates are always inspiring to watch/listen to, because they have yet to be jaded or limited. They are fearless in their composing - willing to try a variety of things and just see how it plays out; they don't get bogged down by sludge of the professional world, and seeing some of these silly pieces written with such abandon was just the break I needed from the music I've been pouring over in preparation for my Master's Comprehensive Exam.

Most of the pieces were written extremely well, even in their silliness, and it was such an inspiration to watch these younger composers laugh and enjoy each other's music - I like to think they weren't thinking about whether their piece was more impressive or received better than anyone else's; everyone was just having a great time. There were a few "serious" pieces on the concert too, but they shinned just as brightly as their humorous counterparts - almost more so, given that they were suddenly thrown into relief. Overall, it was just the concert I needed to feel excited about composing again after a week of trying to deal with so many of the non-musical composition problems from the week.

Looking Ahead

This weekend IU is hosting the Midwest Composers Symposium, so it's going to be a busy weekend of -- what will hopefully be -- a lot of inspiring concerts!