Composition Journal: 11.8.2015

Currently I am working two projects:

1) A symphony for the Arapahoe Philharmonic

2) A composition for Flute and Piano

This post is mainly about the symphony, which I am in the midst of orchestrating. The conclusion has yet to be written, and the dissonant departure at the end of the second movement will likely be re-written.

Naturally the symphony has been a large project. Sketching began in May, in Colorado, at the piano in the Elias home. A dozen pages were written in the repository of my landscape oriented 10-stave hardcover manuscript notebook, each containing several ideas in different styles. Some were germs of ideas; noteheads on the page without barlines or stems, a single line. Other ideas were more fleshed out. What would become the starting point was a solid three pages with themes in definite meter with clear harmony. These pages had a clear style, and that clarity created its own momentum. More momentum than could be contained on sketch pages. Because it stemmed from a piano improvisation, the melody had a simple, natural, and memorable feel.

Back at home in Toms River I sat at the piano in my grandmother's house, alternating between pause-filled classical sonatas, ragtime music with more minor seconds than were written, and orchestral transcriptions at the slowest tempo you've ever heard. At some point I began playing through the sketches in my notebook. My white-haired grandmother emerged from down the hall, saying, "oh, is that West Side Story you're playing?" The earlier Haydn was apparently of no interest. But the sketch struck a nerve. It sounded "American" like Copland, Bernstein, or Hanson. The melody was singable, the harmony lean, and the rhythm energetic and varied. Bing. This is the one.

This material was suitable for a finale because it is in a fast tempo, 6/8 meter, and bursting with rhythmic energy. But as the material began to be fleshed out on the computer screen in Sibelius it developed into something more. There were depths hidden in the dotted rhythms and lurching accompaniment that demanded to be explored more, be made more whole. It wanted to be given more context. And slowly the ideas began appearing, each new phrase a glimpse into the window of a rich life that can be seen only in the space between blinks. Schopenhauer, anyone?

The Vivace material worked itself out and after 250 bars, needed to be transitioned into something new. It had to be a clear Andante horn solo, pianissimo. In the same language as the preceding music but speaking different words. A changed topic in the conversation. And so the next movement began, seemlessly connected to the first.

Months later, by somehow finding time between moving across the state, starting a new job, serious piano "shedding", and the distraction of writing smaller more immediately relavent pieces, the piano-reduction of the symphony was nearly complete. In September, a lesson from the dear wise Charles Fussell illuminated issues with phrase lengths. An introduction was added, as well as a coda to bookend the two movements. I have fallen in love with the work even as I see, painstakingly close, its many flaws. The melodies are not inventive enough. The counterpoint is weak in spots. There is too much similarity between the themes. The harmony is too diatonic and the harmonic phrasing is monotonous. There are too many tutti sections. Relying on textural inventiveness and juxtaposition as a narrative device distorts large-scale proportions. The audience may find the work long winded and unfollowable at 22 minutes. But it doesn't matter. I love this symphony anyway. Besides, it needs to be finished sooner rather than later.

This symphony is, at its heart, an American symphony. It conjures images of home and hearth, wide open spaces. It breathes optimism. In many ways this symphony is an outgrowth of the Trio for Flute Violin and Cello. But in the realm of the symphony orchestra, this material explores territory that a trio cannot. It blends the influences of many cultures and styles: French Organ Music, Hollywood soundtracks, 19th century sentimental ballads, Brahms, Reichian Minimalism, Italian Dramatic Opera, Sibelius, Chilean Cuecas, the soundscapes of Ligeti and Xenakis, and my own feeble take on free atonality. There's something for everyone. I've hedged my bets.

Earlier today, I sketched 100 bars of a scherzo for flute and piano. In tandem with the other material I've written, the piece for flute and piano will likely be a multi-movement work. This material is prestissimo, pentatonic, stacatto, sequential.

Tonight I worked on the symphony. In sections where the music will not change, I perk up sections of cliche orchestration. I change instrumental groupings and obscure barlines by modifying rhythms. That's all I have in me tonight.

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