Symphony No. 1 – A Blog: Concepts and Conversations

April 18, 2013: The early stages of planning a composition are almost always the scariest. Faced with limitless possibilities – the proverbial blank page – it is the composer’s job to somehow figure out a way to limit those possibilities – limits that are going to inevitably shape the whole of the work. These limitations come in all forms – limits on harmonic language, rhythmic language, instrumentation, musical form, which extended techniques to use, whether or not to add ratchet, how many triangles and/or brake drums to use, whether or not to add in recorded samples of my daughter reading Dr. Seuss…well, needless to say there are lots of options. And choices.

I typically begin this process of limitation with a concept. Something non-musical – tangible, programmatic even (I know – the “p” word!). Most often, the concept is the very first element that I identify – mostly as a way for me to begin thinning out musical choices that don’t fit within this concept. On occasion, though, I start with some basic sketches – words, instrumentation, very VERY basic form diagrams and drawings – as a way to help conjure up the concept – to see if somehow my rambling chicken-scratches and mental gibberish might lead to an epiphany. That is exactly what happened two days ago. From this:

Symphony 1st sketch - Apr 18, 2013, 10-31 AM

Scribbles of a madman.

I know – it makes TONS of sense, right? Still – an idea did emerge. From all of these words, arrows, and scribbles, I somehow wrote down “All movements are conversations.” This arose from an earlier scribble, where I was playing around with the idea of two movements each working as a dialog in mirror opposition to one another. So, if it could work for two – why not four? Taking this a step further, I played with this concept of conversation and developed four unique concepts – one for each movement (somewhat ironic, considering I am not the most skilled conversationalist…but more on that in a later post). Each idea is derived from a type of conversation: a mumbling and neurotic monologue that amounts to arguing with oneself, sarcastic banter among friends (or, as I wrote on my sketch – bullshit), a breathless rambling lecture, and a passionately intense and intimate dialog.

It was the fourth idea – the “passionate” one – that came forth as somewhat more significant that the others, the emotional core of the entire work. It made sense then that the next stage of my sketching should focus on ideas for this movement, allowing me to eventually draw some of these motives out into the earlier movements. This is what I came up with:

Symphony Mvt 4 ideas - Apr 18, 2013, 10-28 AM

Movement four, initial ideas

I apologize that the sketch is a bit hard to read. This is mostly the result of my wonderful scanner (read: iPhone), but hopefully you can tell that this sketch actually has notes written down! By defining my concept as a “passionate dialog,” I was led to create these specific musical ideas. Starting from the top of the left-side of the sketch and working down, I notated out three unique motives or themes – a “listen” motive (after all, what good is a conversation without listening?), and two themes that make up the dialog itself – a statement, and a response. Without the concept, I might have composed only one theme – or three. Or twenty. Likewise, the choice of composing a “listen” motive would never have occurred without first choosing the core concept of “conversation.”  I recognize that this isn’t exactly genius (more like composition 101), but I feel it is still worth pointing out nonetheless.

The “listen” motive is harmonically very simple – a descending minor-third. It is also rhythmically accented as a way to draw attention to itself. It even mimics the word (“Lis-ten”). This motive is essential to the whole of the symphony, so while I haven’t made up my mind whether or not it will show up in this exact form or not, expect to see some variation of it in all four movements.

I’m not going to get into all the technical music-theory-wonkiness about the two other themes – needless to say, they work together in counterpoint, and have a couple choice notes of dissonance  – friction notes. These friction notes will help amplify the tension that arises out of the conversation.

So where else did my concept lead me? Well, what else goes on in an intense, passionate conversation? Lots – and lots – of silence. Rather than simply relying upon empty space in the music (which – don’t get me wrong – there will be quite a bit of), I made the decision to “create” silence in the music itself – or rather, quiet – and possibly distracting – background noise. After composing out some chordal ideas on the right page, I notated out how these chords could be sustained, quieted, and colored through texture. The idea here is that, as a harmony sustains and dies out, it will leave behind musical echos in the form of grace notes, tremolos, trills, and other small musical ornaments. These echos will tie directly to the conversation and represent what is going on in the minds of each “voice” –  thoughts of where the current conversation is going, ideas of what to say next, second-guesses, memories that cloud judgement, raw emotion, etc.

At this point, you might be wondering what this passionate and intense conversation is all about. Well, that is the beauty of music – it does not need to translate directly. In fact, I don’t want it to translate directly. The conversation should be emotional, at times beautiful, at other times strained, and always intense – but not necessarily translatable.

The funny thing is that – despite everything I’ve typed here and sketched out – I may end up not using any of this in the actual composition! Or, maybe I’ll use some of parts, and leave out others. This whole process is mostly designed to shape my initial decision making, so that in the end the Symphony sounds like a complete and cohesive work. At least, that is the intent.

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