Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Composing Spotlight: Labyrinth

Movement I. Ingress

Labyrinth is the longest continuous composition I've ever written. By the low standards of the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, this also makes it the best one. Weighing in at about sixteen minutes, Labyrinth is a chamber ensemble piece in nine movements (performed without pause). I wrote it as my Master's Thesis at Florida State back in 2002.

The piece was written for a chamber ensemble consisting of 2 flutes, 1 oboe, 1 alto sax (doubling soprano), 1 bassoon, 1 trumpet, 2 horns, 1 trombone, 1 tuba, 2 violins, 1 cello, 1 double bass, 2 percussionists, and a conductor. The low probability of ever having these 17 musicians in the same room willing to perform for free was probably a big subliminal factor in my writing, since I knew that I would never have to deal with the herding-cats tedium of actually getting the piece performed in my lifetime.

Almost all of my compositions are through-composed: I start writing from the introduction and try to stay out of trouble until I write the last note. Sometimes, I'll deign to start from a melody or chord progression (especially for jazz charts) and then preface it with an intro, but from that point, I'll still compose straight through to the end. Because of this, the first movement of Labyrinth was especially difficult to compose, as I wanted to ensure that every single musical idea from the rest of the piece had a germination point in this very first section.

A higher degree of planning went into this piece, as befits a Thesis. Normally, I would just drop Booty on the keyboard and call it a motive. In this case, I plotted out the tonal centers of each movement, the relative lengths, and the basic concept I wanted to convey, but I did NOT write down any melodies or themes. I sat down and started writing Movement I. "Ingress" while living at Anna's parents house, during the summer of 2002, but ended up discarding every single idea I wrote. This either eliminates Chantilly as a hotbed of creativity, or just proves that when you write something, you should always plan to throw at least one version out.

My requirements for the first movement were:

  • The melody should use all 12 pitches, without sounding like a lame 12-tone piece.
  • There should be a half-step, whole-step, half-step motive (shown in the last measure of the score above).
  • The germs for every subsequent movement should be present in some form here.
  • The alto saxophonist should have to play a unison duet with a violin, because that never happens and it will probably piss the violinist off.

After many false starts, I finally settled on the melody seen here in August 2002. The remaining fifteen minutes actually flowed out fairly rapidly once this movement was in place, and I had a finished work by the December holiday break.

    Listen to the first movement (1:04 MP3)

Jump to Movement: I | II | III | IV | V | VI | VII | VIII | IX

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