Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Composing Spotlight: Clown Facades

I sat down last night to write a Museday, but was struggling with inspiration. Instead, I decided to relisten to one of the pieces I wrote in my brief stint as a fulll-time composer: a commission I received in the spring of my 4th year of perpetual college.

On the few times I received commissions, I always tried to nail down as many rules as possible up front, because more constraints generally lead to more creativity in trying to break those constraints down. Composing is the hardest when you have a blank screen and no direction at all (which is why Museday always starts from a single word). The rules I had for this composition:

  • The piece must be for trombone, euphonium, and piano. The trombonist and the euph'er must switch instruments at least once during the performance.
  • The piece should be an opener for a recital -- upbeat, lighthearted, not too grand, and not massive finale.
  • The piece should be about five minutes long.
  • With these rules in hand, I sat down at the keyboard over the summer of 2000 (which was also my first internship at FGM) and spewed forth several high-capacity jets of crap. The very first fragment I wrote down was this, (100KB MP3), which was far too flippant for anything but a practice room duet. The second fragment I wrote was this, (100KB MP3), which was much cooler, but also felt like a feeble ripoff of the Beatles. However, each fragment helped me shape what the piece would eventually become.

    The next part I wrote was the chords under the 8-bar introduction, which starts out with an F# minor 7 going to a D7 and back again. I recall being frustrated and deciding to start in F# minor because band music never starts in F# minor (this was going to be a problem when I eventually decided to get to G minor, but the Circle of Fifths is highly pleasurable).

    By the time school was about to start again, I still only had about 16 bars of music. After playing it for Paige though, she remarked that it sounded like a bunch of psycho clowns, which immediately clarified my approach to the piece. I finished the remainder in a whirlwind of focus, and used Paige's spaghettio font on the final title, Clown Facades.

    Below is a link to an MP3 recording of the piece as performed by a computer (computers are way better at maintaining a tempo than humans). Give a listen, and read some of my podcast style thoughts as the recording plays:

    Clown Facades (3MB MP3)

    0:14This is the original theme that Paige equated with clowns.
    0:30At this point, I realized that I wanted to be in G minor.
    0:40Mission accomplished.
    0:47Listening to this now, it sounds like I was going to compose about a bull fight.
    1:00We're in D minor now. Why did I try so hard to get to G? This section is based on the 2nd fragment that was Beatles-like. I was very much in a "I'll insert jazz ironically in all my compositions" stage, and also wanted to see if I could put 12-bar blues in a serious piece and not have anyone notice.
    1:16I wanted a very clean jazz. The score actually says "like Gershwin, not Ellington".
    1:41I really like the juxtaposition of a 2-meter vs. a 3-meter here. Clowns would mix it up, and so should I.
    2:05This section was originally just long enough to allow the performers to switch instruments, but I really got into writing the piano imitation.
    2:32The score says "Like a hurdy-gurdy winding down..."
    2:46This section gives the piano a rest, but is also intentionally simple and low to give the low brass performers a few notes to warm up their cold instruments. I'm clever like a lever with a C on it.
    3:18Okay, they're warmed up. Let's dick around.
    3:47This section hearkens back to the first fragment, and I wanted it to feel like a satire of a technical study. Jay Crone nailed it when he said to "play it more like an Arban ?tude from Hell" during a rehearsal. I didn't prompt him at all.
    4:10It's starting to get out of control...
    4:24Once I get in 3/4 time, all my pieces sound the same.
    5:04I felt like the only way to end the piece would be to reprise the introduction, but in parody.
    5:19I have no idea how we ended up in Eb major, but I think this was a perfect ending -- it closed the piece emphatically, but left enough tension in the air to ring in the rest of the recital.

    What do you think about Composing Spotlight day? Boring? Fascinating? Should it return? Let me know! We can always use new ___ Days at the URI! Zone.

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