Thursday, 6 December 2012


The piece is written, the parts are learned, and the recital was played last night!

I'm happy with how it went - my piece came together really well and my performers were great to work with - thank you!! This recital went off with so much less stress than the last one - I felt more prepared, even though I felt like I prepared less - I suppose because it was a much smaller project, and because I was much easier on myself in terms of difficulty.
It was also great to hear everyone else's pieces - the final complete versions played by real live musicians... I know we were all scrambling to get things together, but everyone pulled it off really well - good work! I'm excited to hear the recording!

I just want to add one last note to say: thank you!! For all the feedback you gave throughout the semester, that good balance of constructive criticism and positive comments. It was a great class - and I look forward to next semester!

Saturday, 1 December 2012


The end is in sight! This semester's been a little insane. But that's how things go, I suppose.

My piece is going quite well. I've sent parts out to my performers. All the notes are there, I just have some detail work and editing left to do. And by "some", I probably mean "a lot"...

This whole composition process reminds me somewhat of boat building. Both of my brothers have build cedar-strip canoes, and my Dad and I built a small sailboat together when I was in high school. There are interesting similarities in the process:

  • You start with an idea: "Let's build a sailboat!" or "Let's write a piece!" You narrow down your idea to a specific boat, or a specific type of piece for specific instrumentation. 
  • You think. A lot! You come up with (or buy, in the case of boat building) some sort of plan. 
  • You start working at it. 
  • Your project starts to take shape. It starts looking more and more like a boat, sounding more and more like music. But it's still an outline. Lots of gaps to fill. 
  • You keep working at it. 
  • You encounter problems, unforeseen challenges. 
  • You think. A lot! You research, see what others have done. 
  • You find solutions to problems.
  • You show people your work in progress, get feedback, ideas, encouragement. 
  • You make mistakes. You fix mistakes. 
  • You learn. A lot!
  • You make progress. It really looks like a boat now. It really sounds like a piece. It seems so close to being finished. But there is more to be done: your boat needs fibreglass, paint/varnish - and then rigging, oh yes, rigging. And your piece needs dynamics/expression, articulation, finer details. And all this WILL take much longer than you expect. 
  • You think, you research, see what others have done. You borrow ideas. You figure it out. 
  • You finish! Or so you think!
  • You take the boat to the lake and go for a sail. It feels amazing! But you're still learning the ins and outs of your boat. And you find things to adjust, things to rig a little differently, to set shorter or longer. You take your piece to the practice room and test it out. It's fun - but you see things you want to adjust - notes to change, dynamics to add...
  • You make adjustments. 
  • You try it out again. You make more adjustments. This can go on for a while!
  • You decide enough is enough, and declare the project finished! And you are (hopefully) proud of your work. 
Yes. So right now, I'm in the trying-it-out-and-making-adjustments stage. So close to being done! (I think!) Just need some rehearsal time to put it together! 

I also want to reflect on the "showing people your work in progress" stage. Coming into this course, I was nervous about sharing my work in class - "What will they think?? What will they say??" - especially in a class where most people have much more compositional experience than me. Still now, I feel pretty self-conscious... but it always ends up well. Everyone is so positive and encouraging, but also free to give constructive criticism - even when I go into class feeling uncertain about my work, I come out of it with a better idea of what to do next, confirmation of the good aspects of my work, and suggestions on how to improve the not-so-good aspects. You guys are awesome - thank you!!
And I also really enjoy hearing everyone else's work each week. It's really interesting to hear the pieces progress and to get a little bit of an inside view of the work that went into them. 

Classes are done now for the semester - that's still hitting me! It's December!
And our composition recital is set for this coming Wednesday! Yes, really!
The end is in sight!

Friday, 16 November 2012

thinking, overthinking

It's been a while since I last posted. My main accomplishment since then: finished editing my score, got it printed, and passed it in. Did that ever feel good!

And now we're into the final project of the semester. I'm doing the second option: to set a text for voice and 2-3 other instruments. I've chosen a poem by A. A. Milne called "Spring Morning" - it's fun and lighthearted, as you might expect from Milne, the author of Winnie the Pooh. Lots of opportunity for word painting. And I'm writing for soprano, cello and piano.

I've been having some trouble starting this one. I think I've been thinking too much. I want to keep it light, but not overtly tonal - we're supposed to use more original harmonic language... So I've been playing around with different scales like the whole tone scale and octatonic scale. I want to make sure the voice part sounds somewhat logical so the singer will be able to find all the notes. I want to make sure the piano part plays nicely so I don't get stuck rewriting huge bits again when it comes time to perform it (I've learned my lesson!). The cello part wants to be playable too - which is more difficult to judge since I don't play cello... And then I've been anticipating comments I'll get in class -- "free up the rhythms," "try extended techniques," "use the full range of the instruments," "think about harmonics and double stops and all in the cello"....  And of course I've got the deadline in mind - not much time left in this semester!!
All this thinking has been paralyzing me. I've found the progress slow and the results not super satisfying.

I shared what I had in class Tuesday, and it was somewhat encouraging. Ideas included to play around with the chords you can make out of WT/octatonic scales and see what I like; also to consider using another scale or two, or maybe modes of limited transposition. Dr Ross did suggest to free up the rhythm of the voice to reflect the text; for example, be hesitant/thoughtful when it says "I don't quite know"... Good ideas, and I'm trying to incorporate them.

It has been going a bit better since then, in part because of a completely unrelated assignment. I had to write a 16 bar etude for Post-tonal music using contemporary rhythmic techniques and a specific scale and chord type. I was assigned a G pentatonic scale and added note chords - awesome! Really anything I wrote would sound good! So I just made spontaneous decisions, played with non-retrogradable rhythms and added values and odd meters and isorhythm... and the piece pretty much wrote itself. It was super fun to do. And it made me think (yes, thinking again) - could I use techniques like that to direct my composition for this class? Find ways to limit myself, to provide structure, to develop material, to cut down on the number of decisions I need to make when I'm writing?

And so I went back to my text, and come up with a bit more of a plan for this piece - which scales to use where, which elements of the text to highlight musically, how I see the roles of each instrument... it's still a bit elusive, but I definitely have more of an idea what I want with this piece now, and that's giving more to draw from when I sit down to write. It's progress!

Yes. That's where I am now. Still tons of work to do, but I'm feeling less overwhelmed. And that is good.

Friday, 26 October 2012

a learning experience!

Composition recital yesterday - the premier performances of all our pieces! Congratulations, everyone! There were great moments in all the pieces!!

Overall, I'm happy with my composition. I do wish we'd had more time to rehearse, but we pulled it off! And, with this being a whole new experience for me, I learned a TON in the process!

  • Composition is challenging and incredibly time-consuming, but also very rewarding!
  • Writing for piano is difficult! Even for pianists! Especially in my third piece, with all the arpeggios/scalar figures, I learned (the hard way) not too write too much away from the piano. When I started practicing it, I found much of it awkward to play and spent a lot of time revising it to fit better under the fingers. No sense making it unnecessarily difficult when I could get the same effect in an easier way. 
  • Balance. I hadn't thought too much about it until rehearsals. I found that the lower register of the horn can be easily drowned if the piano's also in the lower range. And there was a section with both of us in our upper ranges where I found the horn was better supported when I dropped the piano part an octave. 
  • It's hard to know when to stop editing. It seems like in every rehearsal, I saw/heard things I could have done a bit differently, but it was too late to really make changes. I will fix some things now before I submit the final score. 
  • Notation. I've thought a lot about how best to notate things - especially fingering - and mostly in my third piece again. What's the clearest way to indicate which hand should play what in arpeggiation... m.s./m.d. markings? Stem directions? Keeping one hand to each staff? Some combination of them all? Or just leave it up to the performer? Although fingering can sometimes be a matter of personal preference, it is helpful to have suggested fingering in the score. I found that all methods get messy in some situations, and so I've changed my mind a good number of times. I want to be somewhat consistent... Right now, I think stem directions are really useful here - but I'd like to pass it by another pianist or two to see what they think. 
  • I am a very particular person. If I find silly little note-spelling things or inconsistencies in my final score, it's going to irritate me. But it's so easy to spend way too much time picking through the score. On Tuesday we're doing some score-editing for each other in class. Excellent!
I am excited to be finished this project - it will be so satisfying to have the final score in my hands!
And I am excited to get started on the next assignment! I'm probably going to do the second option - a piece for voice and 2-3 other instruments. So the first task will be to find a text to use!

Friday, 19 October 2012


We are all scheduled to perform our set of pieces next week Thursday! Exciting! But so soon! Yes, this means I need to: a) finish writing my third piece; and b) learn to play them.
I'm not too worried about finishing the composition - I have a good start on the third piece now. But putting it all together to perform in less than a week will be a bit stressful! As I've been writing them, I've taken the difficulty of the horn part into consideration, knowing that my horn major friend is doing me a big favour in playing them with me, and not wanting to add too much to the pile of music she already has to work on. I haven't been quite as thoughtful towards the pianist - because the pianist is me, and I figured I'd figure it out. And so I will. It will happen! It has to happen!
We discussed moving the recital back a week, but the vote was to keep it as is. I'm ok with that now - it will be nice to have this assignment done with so we can get going on the next one! And I suppose deadlines are a fact of life.

More about the third piece now. It has a straightforward melody in the horn on top of running scales/arpeggios in the piano. Someone commented in class that it has a Debussy-ish sound, and that it works well with the character of my first piece. Suggestions included freeing up the rhythm of the horn, and considering using the mute in some sections. I had thought about mutes but hadn't decided for sure. The general consensus was that the mute would work well here, so I think I will put it in. Also a formatting issue: where there's so many notes in the piano, Sibelius was fitting only one bar per system. I have figured out how to lock the number of bars per system so that I won't be constantly flipping pages.

One last note: I really need to come up with proper titles so I can stop calling them 1, 2 and 3! Any suggestions? :)

Monday, 8 October 2012

oh where is #3?

I'm struggling to get started on #3 - a third character piece using these same chords. I did fairly well with atonality in the last two pieces, but now my ear keeps trying to tonalize things. I'm feeling uninspired, restricted by these unfamiliar chords I've come up with, wanting to return to the conventional harmonic language that I know so much better... but I know that this is a good challenge for me. I will figure something out eventually. But it needs to sound natural, not forced. I've started about three times already, and nothing's going anywhere... Time for a break, I suppose. We'll see what comes tomorrow.

Friday, 5 October 2012


First outing for my second character piece yesterday in class. This one has a bit of a quirky character. It began in my mind as a rhythm in 11/8, which I scribbled down and then played around with. I like the result - it's been fun to write. I still have to come up with a good ending and do a lot of detail work, but most of it is in place.

As for feedback: the class agreed that my current ending was rather abrupt. I didn't like it either - it was something I finished quickly the night before, so I was hoping for ideas on how to improve it. And of course, they did offer good suggestions and things to try (thank you!!). Ideas included:
- Maybe return to the pitch E. I was thinking more of my chords than of a specific pitch centre when I wrote it, but E is definitely a prominent pitch, so it would feel more final if I end there.
- Take a look at the hypermeter and make sure this is a logical point to end at (may need a few more bars...)
- Use a recognizable gesture to signal the end - like a short, high chord followed by a pause and then a low, sustained chord. Or maybe just stepwise resolution, as is common in cadences in tonal music.
- Just play around until I find an ending I like, something that fits the character of the piece, maybe something "cheeky"... something that will make the audience chuckle...

Other suggestions: 
- Explore more of the range of the horn, especially the lower register. It's a good idea - and I personally love playing in the lower range of the horn - so I'll see if I can fit any of that in. 
- Throw some more "wrinkles" into the rhythmic idea - change up the placement of the group of three eighths, use some syncopation... 

Lots to think about over the weekend! I want to get these first two pieces finished up so I can give the parts to my horn player friend who's going to play them with me :)