Conception to Completion – Filum Vitae

by Kenley

Making parts and I have a love/hate relationship.  I love the formatting, the making every part beautiful, the tweaking of fonts and the slight adjustment of dynamics and articulation… until about the fifth hour.

You see, it’s painstaking and precise work.  I love that kind of work… up to a point.

The other catch with making parts is that, while there are many steps between the beginning and end of transcription/arrangement, there is editing and proofreading between every step.

My work for concert band, Filum Vitae, has been rehearsed for many weeks and recorded twice by our school’s Senior Band.  The first draft wasn’t even complete, it got to about measure 50 and stopped (because I had run out of time before Band Camp, which was the first deadline).  It sounded pretty good, but there were still a few transposing errors, key signature things, harmony slip-ups and things that just didn’t work.  I’ll get back to that in a minute, but first, let’s go through conception to completion.

This may sound like a how-to, but it’s not meant to be quite so pretentious.  If you’re a composer and interested in getting performed, I’ve dropped in some notes – they worked for me, but the opposite of what I say may be equally true.

1) Inspiration

You can read more about this on the actual Filum Vitae page (linked above), but it’s really about the emotions in animals being similar to our own.  The concepts may be challenging human uniqueness (which may be comfortable and empowering, the evidence tells us that it just ain’t so), but it lends incredible power to the unity of life through a conduit of feelings – love, mercy, fear or happiness.

The clip that really did it for me is this one, from the BBC’s The Story of Science:

 

2) The Piano

My house isn’t big enough for a piano, so I have my little M-Audio Oxygen, which is far more than satisfactory.  Before I think of instrumentation or voicing, it starts with the piano.  I had the melody and harmony within about ten minutes, then it became a very late night 🙂

3) Text

Whether it’s choral or not, there is always text.  It just helps me figure out what I’m thinking and helps connect the music and my intention.  I was really into this idea of “The Thread of Life” and how life is a great thread that moves throughout time, but also that we’re all threads and together we make a brilliant tapestry.  That’s where the lyrics start – I may not use them, but they accomplished their task.

4) Music and Lyrics and Sketches

Again, whether it’s choral or not, the music and the melody go together.  Even if the connection of putting the text to the melody is psychological, it helps move the music forward.  But, it’s not just me moving the music, it’s the music moving me.  It needs to impact me as I’m writing, I need to feel something during the process and feel it often if the piece is going to get off the ground.  Thankfully, this one kept me going every step of the way 🙂

After the voicing and the harmony is figured out against the melody, I start pencilling in instruments: Cls + B.Cl… A.Sax/T.Sax join here… etc.

5) Checks and Balances

At this point, the instrumentation (if it’s not vocal) is worming its way into my head.  While I’ve got a pretty good ear for orchestration, I’ve still got to check some parts out.  This is the first of the checks and balances during my process and there are many of them.  I use Apple’s Logic as a sequencer and then check some of my sketches digitally.  They usually work, but not all the time… and that’s why we have checks and balances.

The mockup sounds like this:

6) The Long Transcription

This is, by far, the most time- and energy-intensive part of the process.  But let’s be honest, this is composing.  This is where the pencil marks the page and where your ideas can be worked out both visually and aurally.  Where you visually check the sound.  Where you make hard decisions about orchestration, range and all that good stuff.

I used to play all of my music in when I was younger and less patient.  I had it all in my head and I felt like I had to get it down before I lost it.  This may change later on, but I really feel like my work is better when I take the long road.  It makes the think twice about Copy/Paste (especially in percussion writing) and generic cliches because every musical decision takes more time, so think twice about it before you get it down.  This is check-and-balance #2.

7) The Score – Draft 1 

After I’ve finished the pencil and paper aspect of it, the actual “part creation” begins.  Some composers start with this step while others use the notation software to flesh out their orchestration.  Different practices work for different composers and you should do what works for you, but this doesn’t work for me.  I use Finale 2011 (right now, anyway) and this is another long process of playing in every staff of your handwritten-manuscript.  This is also a great time to check every line individually – is this the melody/ harmonic line that you hear? If not, good time to change it.

Check-and-balance #3.

How does your harmony sound? Have you transposed everything correctly? Does the instrumentation (even as brutal as MIDI is) sound like it does in your head?

Check-and-balance #4.

At this point, we get to the painstaking process of plugging in each articulation, dynamic and shape.  Again, this is where really make sure that we want x-note to be staccato, or we really want our bowing a certain way in the strings.

Check-and-balance #5.

8) The Score – Draft 2

At this point, you can make your score look reasonably nice and extract parts that look good enough to be legible.  If you get to this point – right on, good for you.  It’s a lot of work, but if you have a piece that you’re really passionate about then it’s completely worth it.

Email music teachers that you know, respect or are inviting of new work and see if you can get a read from them.  I might not start with a college or university, but there’s no harm in sending the piece out – the worst they can say is “no.”  If you can get a read and hear your work come to life, all of those late nights, shirts full of eraser shavings and sore fingers from writing will be worth it.  It will also sound very different than you thought, most probably in the orchestration department.  You may also have some wrong notes or chords that are voiced a bit strangely or cross-relations that you didn’t hear in your mockup (I know I did with this tune).

There is a big difference between what works digitally and what works acoustically, good thing to remember.  If they read it pretty well (as in, no wrong notes/rhythms and reasonably good shape/pitch/dynamics), see if you can get a rough recording of your tune that you can refer back to.  It doesn’t have to be great, but just so you can hear what it’s like acoustically, rather than always having to go back to your digital mockup.

This is check-and-balance #6.  Make sure you thank the teacher and the ensemble for taking a risk on you and supporting new music and writers.  If you can swing it, ask if you can go back and revise it then make a recording.

Our recording sounded like this:

9) The Score and Parts – Final Draft

There may be more drafts in the middle, but you could have a serious piece in about three or four drafts, if you really work your ears and the manuscript.  I went back to my score and put in all of my edits on my second draft – the cross-relations that I missed, the missing dynamics, the music that came alive during the performance, all of that.

More precise work.  I always miss dynamics somewhere along the way.  After putting those in, I make sure that they’re all in a line on each system, then line up the tempo information, then the shapes… it’s all formatting.  After that, the fonts and the page numbers, the “divisi” and “tutti” and the cues that should have been there, but weren’t.

Check-and-balance #7.

Then I extracted all of the parts and go through them, one by one, doing the same formatting on them (dynamics, articulations, etc.).

Check-and-balance #8.

Then a quick print, proofread again.  Oh, probably forgot something here…

Check-and-balance #9.

Okay… maybe… this is it? Ugh, this crescendo slipped down too far in the Horn 2 part.

Check-and-balance #10.

… Okay…

… Okay! Yeah! Looks great! Did it!

10) Party / Take the Rest of the Night Off

After many hours (probably about 20-25 in total), the whole editing/proofreading is done.

The University of Manitoba Concert Band is recording the work on January 26th, 2012.  So, this round of edits was to make sure that it was perfect when they got it.  I was also an awful university student, so here’s hoping that my old profs look at this and say “wow, I guess he turned himself around!” That would be nice!

Any comments on the post are definitely invited!

Long read! Have a great weekend!
Kenley!

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