Kenley Kristofferson

Composer.

Tag: composition

Music Ed Monday – The Quest for Beer at the Orchestra

Back in Summer of 2015, I was asked by the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra if I could do an arrangement of a pop song for a divisional choir and the orchestra.  Every other year, the River East Transcona School Division hires out the orchestra to play with their choir.  This was an enormous opportunity, so of course I said yes, then got it done on time and on budget (which is a super important part of composing).

Several months passed until, finally, it premiered last week.  In fact, it came up so quickly that it almost slipped by me.  Everything at my school has been so crazy that it’s taken a lot of time and effort to just keep all the plates spinning.  Between teaching and writing, there’s been a lot going on.

That morning, I asked about tickets and it was decided there would be some comps at the door.  I left school at 5:00, grabbed a sub, then headed down to the concert hall, where there were gaggles of kids everywhere, but a noticeable absence of tickets at the box office.  Someone let me inside and apologized profusely (the Winnipeg Centennial Concert Hall staff is exceptionally kind all the time) and I just smiled and said “so long as there’s beer, everything will be just fine.”  The clerk laughed and said there’s always beer at the concert hall.

But there wasn’t this time.  The divisional concert was a school event, so obviously there would be no beer.  Not the end of the world, but beer at the concert hall is just the best.  Really.

wso1

Going to the symphony is less fancy than it used to be, but it’s still fancy.  There’s a formality when going to the biggest hall in the province to see the very best musicians we have play that night.  Even though they played my piece Morgun last year, I’ve always felt like I was never at that level.  I studied with the now-principal trombone of the ensemble and I was terrible.  I really clawed my way to the finish line of my music degree, which had an extra year of lessons because I failed the first year of euphonium.  Failed, not “got a C,” which might as well be a failure for lessons.  I literally failed the playing portion of music school.  For various other reasons, my university failures were the best thing that ever happened to me, but the sense of inadequacy followed me for my entire professional music career (and still does, from time to time).

When the WSO played my piece the first time, I felt like such an imposter.  I was some schmuck who got commissioned to write something, like a one time shot.  They certainly didn’t make me feel that way – they were amazing to me, but I had this narrative spinning in my head.  It was all old baggage from university.  When they asked me again, I couldn’t even believe it, but I knew deep down that I needed to accept the job.

winnipeg-symphony-orchestra-saskatoon_13045727548917

Back to last week:

My piece closed the night and the conductor of the orchestra, Julian Pellicano, thanked the parents and staff of the division, as well as the symphony, and introduced the piece.  He described the piece, then ended by saying that it was arranged by local, yet world-renowned composer Kenley Kristofferson which, while not exactly true, was cool because I was the only arranger he mentioned the entire night.

The orchestra and the choir killed it during their performance.  The kids were into it, the audience dug it, and the performers really nailed the piece.  It was so inspiring that, at the end of it, I thought that the only thing that could’ve made the night better was a beer.

A voice in the back of my mind told me that maybe, just maybe, they’d have beer backstage, but the voice in my mind was clear: You aren’t good enough to go backstage at the symphony.  But the more I thought about it rationally, the more I realized that I wrote the last tune of the night, this is the second time I arranged for the ensemble, and I knew so many performers through university or band camps or whatever.  And hey, the worst that could happen is nothing, right?

So I descended the stairs and slipped through the backstage door and into the hallway, where I hugged and shook hands with some of the RETSD teachers I knew and talked shop for a few minutes.  Then the VP of Artistic Operations stopped me (with a beer in his hand) and smiled as he congratulated me on tonight’s piece.  We talked more shop for a while, then told me about some potential new work on the horizon.  I couldn’t even believe he remembered my name, let alone (maybe) offering me new work! And as he said the next few words, a smile stretched across my face: “Why don’t you come into the green room for a beer?”

And I did and it was packed with both WSO and RETSD folk.  I saw the backstage manager and she remembered me from last year and so did the production manager.  Then Julian came up and we high-fived and laughed throughout the night.  Clearly, the story in my head was not the same as the story that was playing out in front of me, and only one of them can be true.  And guess what, it’s the one in front of you all the time.

Eric Whitacre (one of my favourite composers) once said to music students that “nobody ever asked about his GPA after he graduated,” the important thing is that he got there.  The older I get, the more true that it’s becoming.  We don’t all take the same road to get there sometimes.  Some roads are smoother, some roads have more ups than downs, while others have more downs than ups.  Some people got to practice traversing the road before they actually had to start the adventure and that’s okay too.  We don’t all get to the end the same way, but the important thing is that we get there.

And sometimes at the end, there’s a free beer in the green room.

-K

Music Ed M… Tuesday: I BEAT THE FOREST TEMPLE (AND YOU CAN TOO!)

LegendofZeldaThe-OcarinaofTimeUV-40I have a confession to make: Despite being into games for my entire life, I have never beaten the Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.

I know.  How can you trust anything video-game-related that I have to say? I haven’t even been through the core literature of our genre!  It’s like loving science fiction without having seen Star Wars, or liking fantasy without having seen/read Lord of the Rings.

In truth, I’ve never been able to beat the Forest Temple… until today.

I’m not exaggerating here, but after dying against Phantom Ganondorf over fifty times, I had given up hope.  But it wasn’t like I died fifty times all in one go: I have start and quit Ocarina of Time at least four or five times.

There was a point in my life where I had given up and, no matter how hard I tried, I would never be able to beat this game.

I can count the number of times I’ve said that one hand, so I’m a pretty persistent guy, but there’s something gravely sad about not being able to do something that so many people have clearly done, which leads me to the point that some of you may be thinking:

BUT THE FOREST TEMPLE ISN’T EVEN THAT HARD!

JUST WAIT UNTIL THE WATER TEMPLE!

or

YOU THINK OCARINA IS HARD? TRY “DEMON’S SOULS” OR
“DARK SOULS” OR…

And some of you may not be, and that’s fine, but sometimes we have these benchmarks where we assume (wrongly, I think) that these are things the average person should do.  Well, it may be that there is no “average,” there are just people who are just trying to get through life and get a little better at it as they go along.

One of my former students posted this on her instagram and it was the catalyst to my return to the dreaded Forest Temple:

IMG_2039

I love how it compares these actions to Mount Everest because it correctly contextualizes the amount of effort it will take to surmount them.  It accurately responds to the three prompts from earlier:

But the Forest Temple isn’t even that hard! –  WELL, IT’S HARD FOR ME.

Just wait until the Water Temple! – I NEEDED TO DO THE FOREST TEMPLE FIRST.

or

You think Ocarina is hard? Just try… – I DO THINK OCARINA IS HARD AND NOW I’M GOING TO BEAT IT.

angry_blue_eyes_by_craft_lover-d37j2t0

Because that’s how it ends: We beat it.

I’ve had a really successful year and I’m grateful for everyone who’s helped and I’m pleased as punch that things are going so well, but none of those things have made me howl and scream like finally killing Phantom Ganondorf.  It was like I was ten years old and the house was filled with my cry of victory.  For a good 30 seconds, it was like the Winnipeg Jets winning the Stanley Cup in Game Seven with a goal in overtime.  Solid screaming.  It was that kind of elation.

And it wasn’t because I beat the level, it was that I conquered something that I had failed over and over again.  That was my Mount Everest.  Sure, it wasn’t the tallest mountain or the hardest game (or even the hardest dungeon), but there was something in my mind that told me I couldn’t do it, then I pressed on and succeeded.

And we’ve all been there.  We’ve all done something that we’d failed on time and time again.  The difference for most of us is that those experiences probably happened most often when we were kids and we were less scared of our feelings and the world.  It is easier to give up when you aren’t a child because, when you’re young, you have nothing to lose.

I had to remember that today because I started the temple dying over and over again as usual.  In fact, I thought to myself “why am I even trying? I’m never going to be able to do this,” but I also knew that this was my Everest, not anyone else’s.  As the boss rode out of the pictures and I kept dying, I finally started to systematize where I was going wrong; in this case, my bow technique was poor.  I started to look at each round with him as practice, instead of a life-or-death struggle and I started to tell myself that I would just restart back at the beginning if I died and that I really had nothing to lose.

As I mastered the horse-riding part of the boss, he took on his spiritual form and we played some Zelda tennis with his energy balls and I died again… and again… and again.  I needed to swing sooner.

And even though I figured out the way to beat him, it doesn’t mean that I could do it.  Just because I understood the problem cognitively didn’t mean that I could solve the problem physically.  It became the same as music: Just because I can read it doesn’t mean I can do it.

So I died over and over and over and over again… until the one time I didn’t.

45707-Higurashi-no-Naku-Koro-ni-Mion-Sonozaki-blush-chibi-happy-open-mouth

Let’s not try to climb the biggest mountain ever today, but let’s do what we can and try and do a little more each time.  We don’t arm curl 60s on first day at the gym, but maybe someday we’ll get there.  And we aren’t lesser people if we can’t curl 60s on our first day, we can only do what we can do.  We might start at 5s or 10s or 20s, and wherever you start is fine.  When that feels easy move up a little bit.

Musically, we would never start a 4-year old on their first day of piano with a Rachmaninoff concerto.  They might get there someday, and maybe there are four-year olds who can do it, but everyone’s fine with where they are.

And if you surpass whatever Everest you’re working on right now, allow yourself to feel good about it.  If you let thoughts like “now I can finally do the thing that everyone else can do” get in your head, you’ll never feel good about anything you accomplish.  Do what you can do and feel good about it.  If you’re feeling ambitious, try something else just outside your realm of ability and work to do that, and feel good about that when you surpass it.

It feels good to let yourself feel good about accomplishments, no matter how small.

Have the best week,
-K

Images from:
http://thezeldarealm.blogspot.ca/2011/04/ocarina-of-time-temple-theories.html
http://craft-lover.deviantart.com/art/angry-blue-eyes-194045940
http://sweetrenn.blogspot.ca/

Sabbatical Week 1 Roundup!

Holy noodle, what a week!

I’ve got quite a bit done this week, which is my very first week of my very first (and potentially only) sabbatical.

I didn’t always think of it that way, though.  My first few days were quite frustrating with the feeling that I didn’t get enough done.  I put in between 4-5 hours per day because there were things coming up during the day or at night (meetings, get-togethers, shindigs in the last throes of summer).  I’ve spent all of my time on Movement IV of the Icelandic Folk Song Suite and was averaging about creating 15-20 seconds per day.

The very first thing that I set down was the woodwind run on the second statement of the theme.  This one:

When I told my father-in-law about the 15-20 seconds per day, he laughed and said “you’d better speed it up!” I laughed too because I was thinking the same thing.  It wasn’t moving fast enough.

Today, I buckled down and wrote hard from 10am-5:00pm (with half an hour to run errands and eat a snack) and was now up to 1:40 in the piece.  Today was my first day where I really put a big dent in the piece: I worked out a bunch of the runs and voicings on paper, figured out where most things are going to go, and put almost all of it into Finale.

Then I looked at what I had actually put into the computer and it was 12 reasonably-complete pages.  It wasn’t that I’d only written 1:40 of music, I had written over 130 measures of music in four days.  That’s a lot!

(…for me, anyway).

 

PS: Movement IV is flippin’ fast.

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The adage remains true: When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.

I’ll be busy most of Saturday, but I think that I’ll put some good time in on Sunday.  It’s really great to have the time to really work out the music the way that it needs to.  It gets performed in May, and will need some time for rehearsal, so there’s time to get it right.  I’ve got four months to the premiere (I’ll be gone almost all of November, but more on that later!) and it’s going to be awesome 🙂

-K

 

Music Ed Monday – The First Day

1schoolboy2-medTomorrow is the first day of school.  I can’t remember a time where the September Long Weekend didn’t mean “it’s time to get ready for school.”

As a kid, that meant schedules, timetables, and school supplies.  As a young adult, that meant paying tuition and buying textbooks.  As a grown-up (whatever that even means), that meant prepping the classroom and getting ready to head back to work.

But not this year.

My school division has been gracious enough to grant me a one-semester sabbatical to compose full-time and so I won’t be back in the classroom until February.  This is the first time I won’t have a “first day of school” since 1989.

Since I was five.

That’s hard for me to wrap my head around and it’s hard to let go, but that’s what new things feel like.  Change is hard, man, but that’s life.  The only constant in life is change – the only thing that stays the same is the idea that nothing ever stays the same.

And that’s okay.  Firstly, because I’m coming back; secondly, it’s helped me appreciate these past years of teaching; thirdly, this distance will most likely refuel my tank and make me a better teacher; and finally, some time away will give me some perspective into what I want to do academically with my students.

I’m coming back, so it’s all good.  I’m clearly not saying goodbye forever – I am not in the universe of ready for that.  It’s easy to go away if you know you’ll come back, like leaving home for summer camp.  At this point in my life, teaching is still way too much fun and super important in my sense of self and my ability to make a difference in my community.  I think about the world around me from a perspective of being an educator and I carry myself like a teacher.

And knowing that I’m not coming back until February has really made me look at the last few years in a different way.  I’ve met a lot of awesome human beings and I look forward to meeting more.  I’m in a position where I get share to discovery with people who are in the process of unravelling some of the things that changed my own life.  I really miss that about being a teenager: the sheer volume of Eureka! and Aha! moments that happen in such a short period of time.  How can I make those as interesting and exhilarating as they were (and still are) for me?

When you’re in the thick of it, it’s hard to look at it objectively because you’re in entrenched inside it.  How many times in my life have I forgotten to bring materials, or messed up the order of introducing ideas, or had boring classes? The machine is so complicated and running so fast that it’s hard to keep everything as inspiring and interesting as you want… until you step away from it.  My wheels are already turning and I predict that second semester will be my best yet, which concurrently means that it should (hopefully) by my students’ best yet too.

It’s hard to gain perspective when you’re right inside it and I’ve got some great ideas for second semester.  Music History is going to be the best yet.  So will Jr. Symphonic.  So will Big Band.

I’m also really interested in the sensation of being inside composing for five months and I will be because there’s so much to do.  Here is the sabbatical to-do list:

– one lyrical band commission
– one exciting band commission
– one four-movement suite of Nordic folk songs
– one orchestra premiere
– one residency (hopefully, I’m still getting evaluated)
– one video game to score

There are other irons in the fire, but we’ll see how these shake down.  I’m optimistic that it’s going to be great and I hope that everyone’s school year begins with that establishment.  Set yourself up for success, think positively, do your best.

Let’s have a great year,
-K

 

 

Music Ed Monday (Tuesday) – Kindness Matters

When I was in third year university, a flautist and fellow student named Jessica was killed in a car accident.  I remember that winter being very traumatic at school, but one moment was particularly so.

While I wasn’t in the U of M Symphony Orchestra, my friends who were told me that the next rehearsal was cancelled, but practice would resume on its next regular class.  The following rehearsal was very quiet and had one noticeably empty 1st Flute chair.

That’s one image that always stuck with me: The quiet orchestra and the empty chair.  If we extrapolate that, there is an absence of that part when the music is played like the ensemble is waiting for a flute solo that will never be heard quite the same way again.

madisonLosing one of my students is my worst nightmare and, at the very beginning of summer, it happened to Karri Anderson in Olds, Alberta.  In fact, it would be more appropriate to say that it happened to everyone in the community.  To celebrate Madison’s life, the music program at the school has commissioned me to write a piece about her.

It’s difficult to look into the face of something you so dreadfully fear, but you need to because that’s life.  With that said, I’ve begun learning about her, starting with a piece in her local paper and obituary.  When you read about her life, her interests, and her personality, it’s hard not to believe the adage that the brightest flames burn quickest.

One thing stuck out more than others, though: Kindness matters.  It was her favourite saying and something that I live by as well.  I feel a strange kinship with this 16-year old that I’d never met and, sadly, never will.

What’s difficult about the commission is that it’s for people who not only knew her, but have had to endure her absence.  It can’t just be warm and bubbly because that’s not real – that’s not their experience.  The piece is as much for the band, the family, and the community as it is for her and it needs to give them solace too.

It needs to be deep and moving with a delicate balance of warmth and loss.  It can’t be entirely depressing, but it can’t be devoid of hurt and heartache.

I feel a lot of pressure to do an exceptional job, but I think that’s okay.  We’re not writing about a trip to the fair or an English field – this is about someone who was loved but taken too quickly.

While tragic, it reminds me that we don’t always have everyday to say what we’re feeling, so make sure you tell your loved ones that you love them today.

-K

Prairie Wedding is Available!

Prairie Wedding COVER

Happy Easter!

The day is here! Prairie Wedding is published and available for purchase! You can find it at the Daehn Publications website! (or your favourite local music dealer!)

It feels like so long ago that I submitted it for the 2012 CBA Composition Competition and here we are, halfway through 2014 and it’s finally in print.  I don’t mean that in a critical way – that’s just how long things take in the arts, especially when publication is involved.

I am so, so, so grateful to Larry Daehn for taking a risk on my and publishing BOTH Filum Vitae and Prairie Wedding.  Seriously, what a great human being.

Below is a recording by the ever-awesome Cleveland Symphonic Winds under the direction of Loras John Schissel.

Music Ed Monday – The Big Leagues

When I walked into Complex Games that fateful Spring day of 2013, I saw 3D models of, what looked like, the nephews from DuckTales, but immediately put it aside.  I had a meeting with Noah Decter-Jackson (the CEO of the studio) because he wanted to talk to me about an upcoming project.

“… No…” I thought to myself in disbelief.  “I must be mistaken.”

I guess I was trying not to get my hopes up.  Then I passed another monitor and they were tweaking some colour on Scrooge McDuck’s smoking jacket.  Could it be…?

Then I saw Noah and we smiled and shook hands.  He invited me into his office and we caught up for a while (I had been doing contract work for Complex Games for about seven years at this point, so we’ve got a great relationship).  Off the cuff, I said: “Wow, this new game looks a lot like DuckTales!” To which he smiled and said “it is DuckTales.  Have a seat.”

The moment of rising anxiety-mixed-with-excitement is what I’ve come to call the “big leagues” feeling.  That was the first time I ever really felt like I was in over my head.  I was playing in the big leagues.

He walked me through the level design and we determined what would need music and how much.  It was only six tunes and I knew that I could do it, but the quality had to be so, so, so, so high.  I make my stuff as high-quality as I can, but it’s rare that I’ll be lying awake at 11:30 worrying if I put too much mid in the bass EQ.

(That specific example is below.  Seriously, it’s the most iconic bass line in Disney, which will bring me to my next point:)

It’s important not only to want to do a good job, but the other side of that coin is the overbearing feeling of “don’t screw it up.”  And it really is a ton of work.  A metric ton.  Of work.  It’s a ton work that you want to be great, but also to not screw up.

It is so messed up, but I got it done and I grew for it.  I was better for it.  It leads up to something I’ve told my students quite often, best articulated by Courage Wolf:

courage-wolf-bite-off-more-than-you-can-chewThe feeling of being overwhelmed by contibuting something that you believe is beyond you is called a great opportunity for growth.  By going through those feelings of stress, of working so hard you don’t think you can keep going, of continual revision, of the pursuit of your personal best and a constant and consistent strive for excellence, you enable yourself to grow.

I still get those feelings.  I got them with my next contract, KRE-O: CityVille Invasion when I saw toys for the game I was making.  I’m currently working on Betty Boop Dance Card for iOS and I still get those feelings.  Last week, I was so stressed that all I could think about was throwing up and scotch.  But hey, guess what? I made it through without either throwing up or scotch.  When you play in the big leagues, the big league feelings never go away.

Growth is never easy and it rarely feels good until after it’s over.

In teaching, this is what the musical feels like.  It’s two weeks before the show, it’s 9pm on a Tuesday and I just want to go home.  But we aren’t done yet.  We’ve been working on these scenes for months because that’s how long it takes and it has to be good.  That’s one part; the other part (as the pitband director) is don’t screw it up because the singers/actors/dancers are depending on you.  And then the show happens and it’s amazing and we’re so proud of everyone.  At that point, we know that it’s worth it and everyone grew even though it was so much work because it was so much work.

That’s what growth looks like.  You don’t get to grow by doing things you can already do, you grow by doing things you can’t.  You grow by throwing yourself in, drowning for a bit, stressing, struggling, busting your butt, then eventually figuring things out, then working some more, then getting it, then tweaking, then perfecting, then feeling awesome.

So bite off more than you can chew… then chew it.
K

Its song, so sweet, compels me…

This past month, something that I always felt inside was confirmed:

The world is craving emotional classical music about our place in the natural universe.

We Are Stars is getting published, Filum Vitae is in submission (but has generally been well-received) and, perhaps most surprisingly, Cosmos has been shared by prominent astronomers, is being featured by the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (Vancouver) and has connected with thousands of people.

Literally thousands.  We’re almost at 13,000 views.

There is a hole that needs to be filled in people’s hearts that is filled with an awe and beauty of the natural world.  I know it because I have it too.

Whatever connects with us is often what comes out best.  So, I know that there are more like me now.  I always knew, but there’s still that shred of doubt that always lingered.  I want to say that it doesn’t matter if no one gets it, but I think that it matters to me.  It matters if you are sending a message into the air or sky or universe and no one is receiving it.  My music resonates with me and I want it to connect with people like it connects with me.

Here is a snapshot of one of my next pieces.  Here’s the text:

We are wanderers
in a darkened sky.
We are wanderers
to the stars.

We are travellers
through the veil of night.
We are travellers
to the stars.

The horizon softly calls.
I hear it in my heart.
Its song, so sweet, compels me
to cast my light into the dark.

This is the beginning.  More to come 🙂

Kenley

Music Ed Monday – Allow Yourself To Be Moved

The strangest thing happened on Friday night: I went to “Indie Game: The Movie” and was emotionally moved.  I mean, really emotionally.

I had to go home and journal after watching the movie, it was that profound.

If you don’t know of IGTM, then watch the trailer below and read up on it.  There were only two screenings in Winnipeg and both were sold out – lucky I got my tickets in early December.

IGTM follows three sets of developers: Phil Fish from Polytron Corporation (of Fez fame), Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes from Super Meat Boy and Jonathan Blow, who made Braid.  Let’s do a quick rundown…

Fez:

Super Meat Boy

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=snaionoxjos]

Braid

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uqtSKkyJgFM]

They each have their own creative struggles, most notably with creative expression, being understood, being valued and the push for production (i.e. deadlines).

It really brought to light so many feelings that I had pushed way, way down.  For example, there was a scene where Phil is talking about how he’s been so close to this game for so long that he’s scared he’s lost perspective and can’t see the game for what it really is anymore and I feel like that all the time, especially with the choral suite that I’ve been working on-and-off for the past year.  I’m so attached to it that I don’t even know if it’s good anymore.  Well, that’s not entirely true – I would know if it sucked, but if I’m putting my heart and blood and time and tears into it, I want other people to feel what I feel and if they don’t, then I feel like maybe I haven’t achieved what I’ve set out to do.

(Keeping in mind, that once art is sent out into the world, it’s free to be interpretted as it is, Brenna said that tonight and she’s definitely right).

I don’t want to cry anyone a river in this post because that’s not what it’s really about.

On Friday, I was moved.

On Friday, I was vulnerable.

On Friday, I was open to art and it was open to me.

Let’s be honest here: Sometimes, I’m not open to art.  Sometimes, I keep that wall up and ain’t nothin’ getting through it.

We’re probably like that a lot, aren’t we? There are so many other things going through our mind that we don’t allow ourselves to be vulnerable during class when we’re rehearsing rep, listening to music or singing our hearts out.  Our guards are up.

The strange thing is that we don’t really like that feeling – the music always feels best when we connect with it.  We know that because that’s why we do it, that’s the feeling that keeps bringing us back.   But why do we stop it? Why do we stop the very thing that brings us there in the first place?

That’s this week’s assignment: Be aware of what gets in the way of your connection to Music in the classroom.  It’s hard, so be ready for that, but it’ll be worth it.  We’re going to pick up on it next week, so come prepared 🙂

Allow yourself to be moved.  Open up and let it happen, even if it’s just you and your iPod in the middle of the night.  Put your guard down and see what happens – you might be surprised, but you sure won’t be sorry 🙂

Kenley

(Picture: http://www.princeton.edu/~artspol/quickfacts/image%20files/apaInspiration02.gif)

Conception to Completion – Filum Vitae

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!