Symphony No. 1 – A Blog: Stitches

June 11, 2013: Last week was a bit of a whirlwind. After returning from a (very) brief trip up to Western Oregon University in Monmouth, Oregon, I dove straight into the short score of the second movement. Five days later – and several multi-hour sessions – a short score (of sorts) has been completed. Honestly, it is a mess – less a short score and more of a “patchwork mock-up…thingy.” However, the important elements are all in place, giving me plenty of cohesive material to work with as I move on to the full orchestration. There are still many elements that need to be composed – however, I feel that this mock-up gives me a good direction to work towards.

In the category of “good news,” I can report a few major developments for the Symphony. First, I have my second orchestra lined up! The Cornell Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Maestro Chris Kim (whom I worked with back in 2010) will perform the Symphony in the Spring of 2015! This will be the official “east-coast premiere” of the work. And…on top of this good news, I also have negotiated the publishing of the Symphony with Beauty in Cacophony Press (BCP). I have worked with BCP and its founder Noah Luna in the past, and know that this piece will be in outstanding hands. It looks like the Symphony may have a good future after all!

I also took up knitting last week. Yes, you read that right. Which means I now both knit and garden. I am well on my way to becoming the 75 year-old grandma I always wanted to be.

This random aside is relevant, but…well, more on that later.

I started the preliminary work on the second movement while I was still up in Oregon – although realistically I’ve had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to do with this movement for quite some time. Granted, not all of the details had been worked out until now – however, the basic concept was in place. In keeping with my overall concept of “dialog,” this movement takes its inspiration from the jazz tradition of “trading fours” in which the drummer performs a series of brief solos, alternating with solos by the rest of the ensemble. These solos typically are in four-bar lengths – hence the “fours” in trading fours. Yes – I do recognize that trading fours occur in many other musical styles. I am most familiar with it in jazz, having been a jazz performer myself many ages ago in what now feels like a former life!

Regardless, I knew I needed more to work on besides this trading fours idea. While on the long 11-hour drive from Fresno to Monmouth, I had quite a bit of time to mentally work out some other details for the movement. So, along with the general concept I came up with two additional ideas to help flesh out the work. The first of these was the overall style of the movement. Despite the inspiration of the concept, I did not want this movement to be jazzy in style. Likely due to the folk and bluegrass being played on the NPR station between Redding and Medford, I decided that the style of the music would take its inspiration from the fiddle and guitar riffs found in this music. While this might seem like a somewhat random decision, I can assure you that it is not. About two-and-a-half years ago I took up the banjo, and have since fallen in love with contemporary bluegrass and folk. It has become one of the many stylistic tools that I frequently draw from as part of my overall voice.

The second detail that I worked out was what the “thread” of this movement was going to be. I probably should explain what I mean by “thread,” as this is not a common term used by…well, anyone. Recently, I noticed that my most successful works all have in common a unified structure driven by some form of single-minded process, such as a ground-bass, isorhythm, or other process-based harmonic progression. However, it is rare that these processes manifest themselves in a pure form. I find that I end up making significant adjustments to these common techniques, tweaking them until I come up with a unique approach for that individual composition. For example, with the first movement I took a three-note collection (B, C, D) and proceeded to craft a harmonic progression by simply expanding outward by half-step, maintaining the C as a common tone. So, [B, C, D] became [Bb, C, Eb], which led to [A,C,E], etc. Upon reaching a climax, I transposed the “chord” and then proceeded to work backwards, reversing the process. This formed the “thread” for that movement.

The practice of using a process to determine harmony is not particularly unusual. Heck – there is a reason why early Steve Reich is referred to as “process music.” However, whereas that music used process as a way to compose the whole work, I use this as a way to form just the underlying structure – or, as I mentioned earlier – the “thread” of the piece. It is this thread that keeps everything together in a logical and consistent manner, stitching all other material together.

Which brings me back to knitting. Perhaps part of the reason I find myself enjoying this new hobby is how similar knitting and composing feel to me. Granted – one is a physical process, and the other is a mental one. However, they are both creative activities that rely upon a cohesion of material. With knitting, a single strand of yarn is used to create the entire fabric. Sure – new strands can be introduced to change color – however, the two strands must be weaved together in a careful manner so that the entire fabric does not come undone. All it takes is one incorrect stitch, or one casual tug at the yarn at the wrong time to completely unravel the whole work. I could just as easily use this description to describe my composition process, even down to the analogy of using a second “thread” to change color within the work.

So, along those lines the “thread” that I came up for movement two needed to stitch together both the trading fours concept and the folk/bluegrass stylistic inspiration. I derived a seven chord progression primarily based upon open fifths and minor triads, drawing upon the harmonies of my chosen style. I set up a pattern that would allow for each small section – between 6 and 14 bars – to repeat in an orchestrated variation. This would form my “trading fours,” so to speak. Initially, I was going to have these alternating repetitions occur between the percussion and the rest of the ensemble. Over time, I abandoned this idea in favor of allowing the trades to occur in a variety of colors. The percussion will still start the trading, but other sections of the ensemble will eventually join in so that the entire movement sounds like a huge dialog among groups of instruments.

Finally, I unfolded the seven chord pattern in a logical process. The first repeated section utilizes just the first chord, the second section uses the first two, the third uses the first three, etc. This gradually unfolds until the seventh section, where all seven chords are presented. This is the ONLY section that I do not repeat, and instead write it out in a manner that implies the trading process but in a much less predictable manner. After this mini-climax, the eighth section drops the first chord thus making this section the last six chords of the progression. Each subsequent section drops the next chord until only the final chord is left. This resulted in a full thirteen sections, with all but the middle seventh section repeated, or “traded,” between different sections of the ensemble. I add a coda to the end to allow for a big energetic ending, serving as a nice contrast to the introverted endings of the first and third movements.

I should probably mention that this movement is also a bit of a barn-burner. It’s a good idea to have at least one of those in the whole symphony.

This movement is by far the most complex of the three movements, and I anticipate the orchestration will take quite a bit of time – far more than the other two movements. So, with this preliminary work done it is time to once again break out the large score! I’ll continue to post my regular progress, so until next time…

Who knows – by then I may have a whole potholder to share.

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