Composition Debrief

Last Friday, April 23, I participated in a composition student recital. Preparing that composition took a lot out of me, and I’m really glad to have had that experience.
This process started about three months ago, at the beginning of the composition class. Although we didn’t have the tools at the beginning of the semester to put something like this together, the goal for the class was to present this last weekend, and we were all conscious of that goal from the beginning.Our professor, Carlos Carillo-Cotto, has a lot of experience teaching composition to beginning students, and he put together a program that worked toward completing a quintet of string quartet plus the composer’s instruments.
We started by reading orchestration guides in order to learn some of the special techniques and opportunities that each instrument has. We worked for a week with each instrument in the quartet, spending time writing short pieces for unaccompanied cello, viola and violin. We also took extra time looking at the innumerable variety of bowing techniques, learning about the different tone colors present in the different strings, and learning how to notate special techniques like violin harmonics.
In this way, even though we were composing the particulars of our pieces at the end of the term, we were working on technique from the very beginning. Unfortunately, those particulars are the hardest thing to come up with.
I started out writing thinking that I was going to do a vocal setting of a text. I felt like I was most comfortable singing in that context, and that I didn’t want to introduce another level of worry by giving myself a piano part.
I had some musical ideas kicking around, but I wasted a lot of time trying to find a text. I wanted something appropriate and not too heavy for the occasion. There were practical considerations as well; I wasn’t particularly interested in singing in English or German, and the text had to have a structure that lent itself to music. Finally out of desperation, I chose a poem by the Italian poet Giuseppe Ungaretti, but I wasn’t entirely keen on it from the beginning.
Trying to set it was a nightmare. The ideas still weren’t coming fast enough, and what I had sounded both melodramatic and shallow and deathly boring. I’d rather take risks than not, but that piece was a failure in a way that I wasn’t proud of. Finally, way too late, I decided to scrap it all, move over to the accordion instead of sing, and adopt a completely new structure.
My salvation came (indirectly) from this blog. The structure and harmonic scheme of Arvo Part’s Fratres was still in my mind from a blog post that I wrote about it about two or three weeks ago. And so I decided to adopt a similar structure, a series of five chords that operated like a ritornello: a statement of the chords followed by an episode. The harmonic language of those episodes was determined by the sequence of the chords.
Even this was too much work for me, I realized. I came up with a flexible melody line that could be rearranged and re-orchestrated in every episode. That’s when I really got to work. I had one melody and one line of chords and I needed to write six minutes of music from that.
That took several days of no sleep.
Last Wednesday night, we had our first rehearsal of the piece, and I was really happy to hear sections that sounded awful in the MIDI-produced composition software track. I had some trouble with notating pauses; when I’m only writing for myself, I know when to take dramatic pauses, but these musicians played whatever we put in front of them. I was too exhausted at that point to even enjoy the experience of having something that only existed in my head being played live.
On Friday, I was still kind of worried about it. There was so much that I could have fixed, and no opportunity to do it (although you can bet your buttons I’ll be revising it). But the musicians were wonderful, and I was really happy with the performance.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *