Symphony No. 1 – A Blog: Processing

May 16, 2013: Well, it was bound to happen. After almost a whole month of steady progress, I finally stumbled upon my first major case of writer’s block. The good news is that I managed to work through the block, but not without a considerable amount of caffeine, sweat, and…well…more sweat (I really wanted to work in a clever re-contextualization of “blood, sweat, and tears” here, but I’m afraid my creativity is spent!).

This particular case of writer’s block began with the sudden realization that what I was attempting to sketch was simply not “it.” After spending several hours attempting to spin my idea of “inner dialog” into a coherent sketch (and, upon failing, trying to spin it again – and again) I was forced to accept that the method in which I was crafting my material was simply not working.

It didn’t help that I had backed myself into a bit of a corner with the previous movement. Let me backtrack a bit. When sketching the THIRD movement of the Symphony (you read that right – more on  that at the end of this entry), I had created a few bars of material that didn’t really fit in, towards the end:

Movement 3 sketchMovement 3, mm. 138-141; Strings (Viola [alto clef] is circled)

In the margins of this movement’s sketch, I had written a note to myself asking where this material came from. I often jot down these types of semi-rhetorical questions, as they assist the creative process. Inevitably an answer will manifest – either through the music itself, or through one of my own half-baked ideas. Sure enough, by the time I had completed this movement, I had made the conscious decision that the material would be a quote from the first movement, and that the viola line would make up the first movement’s main motive. Silly me.

Analyzing this melody, I came up with a few basic elements to work with. One – the mode implied was clearly B phrygian; two – the rhythms present seemed to intentionally avoid strong beats, creating a line that was free-flowing and arrhythmic; three – combined with the other lines, a blurry contrapuntal texture was created that seemed somewhat related to either a micropolyphonic sound mass of Ligeti, or perhaps a John Adams-esque post-minimal texture. Both of these methodologies got me thinking about using some form of harmonic process as a way to drive the whole work. Admittedly, this little snippet of material could have been interpreted and analyzed in many other manners. If you see a different interpretation that is perfectly fine! For me, the analysis of my own material is simply about putting it into context so I know what the hell to do next. Clearly, this didn’t work.

Which brings me back to my writer’s block. It seems obvious to me now, but at the time I was working through the block I struggled to take this material and spin it out in a manner that was satisfactory:

Failed movement 1 sketch - May 16, 2013, 8-39 AM

One of several failed sketches

You can see in the above sketch that I got about halfway through the page before realizing I simply didn’t like what I was creating. I attempted to make sense of the rhythms of the original idea, even forcing it into some sort of quintuple variation and then morphing that into a string of moving sixteenth notes. One positive element that came out of this sketch was the idea of having a continuous chord progression – the harmonic process idea alluded to earlier – over the course of the whole movement.

The big problem was that I had identified three elements – when in fact two of them were too ambiguous for me to successfully develop. The B phrygian mode was easy enough to work with – the issues stemmed from the arrhythmic rhythms as well as the “counter melodies” and their implied textures. Now, there frankly is nothing wrong with either of these elements except for the fact that they weren’t working for me. Another composer might have taken these and gone to town, never looking back. I envy that composer to a degree – he or she wouldn’t have had to deal with the headaches I had last Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning. However, the end result would have been different music than what I would end up creating. Not better or worse, just different.

In short – I had to recognize that my original viola melody was not the actual motive of the first movement, but a developed variation of it. So, a simplified version of the motive was created as a goal for the initial melody to morph into – thus taking a movement that was originally supposed to be atmospheric and hazy and giving it a bit more rhythmic vitality:

Movement 1 sketch, take 8 - May 16, 2013, 8-41 AM

Movement 1 sketch – take 8

I start on the top of the page with the viola melody, somewhat transformed, and then proceed to spin it out in a few variations before finally settling on the more rhythmic one halfway down the page. I completely dump the other counter-melodies, instead placing the original in counterpoint with itself. Finally, I dress up the melodies with some high violin harmonics as a “color pad.”  Harmonically, the idea of using a process is retained. At the bottom of page 2 of the sketch, I take the initial B phrygian trichord (B, C, and D) and use that to create an expanding chord progression, culminating at a five note quintal/tritone derived chord, and then collapsing back in on itself. This progress represents the whole 7 minute movement, meaning that the harmonic rhythm will be inevitably quite slow.

Upon completing this sketch, I had a good sense that this was the one. I thought about using a Ouija board to help determine if I was on the right path or not, but I was instead assisted in an even better way:

Sammy choosing - May 16, 2013, 8-43 AM

Sammy the “Ouija cat” choosing the correct sketch

Hard to argue with that.

While getting to this point was certainly a challenge, much of the hard work on this movement still remains. Since my weekend of turmoil, I have since sketched out most of this movement in short score. However, I refuse to show it here as it is a complete mess – a well organized one, but still – a mess. The sketch leaves much open to the orchestration of this movement, which is going to be essential to its success. Additionally, the orchestration is going to help craft the “inner dialog” concept that I had originally hoped to weave contrapuntally. We’ll see where this goes.

One final note: you probably noticed that I referred to my previously completed movement as movement 3, instead of movement 4. As hinted at in my last post, I have decided to make this a three movement symphony – and for good reason. With each movement shaping up to be between 7 and 8 minutes long, I want to keep the whole work between 20 and 25 minutes. A fourth movement ended up being one too many, so it was cut. Another change. With, I am sure, more to come.

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