So, it’s been a big year. In the last eight months, my family grew by one and I took a one-year sabbatical from teaching to pursue a Master’s degree in Composition from Brandon University. I know, perhaps we could have timed that better but, as the old saying goes, “the right time is when it happens,” right?
Anyway, I’ve certainly learned a lot this year (from both experiences above) and I’m ready to share my second semester piece for concert band, “Colossus.” It’s a Level 5 piece–my first one–and it’s a programmatic tale about the dangers of human hubris… oh, and hunting a giant.
Giants are in folklore and media from across the world, though I’ve long been fascinated with the creatures who protect (rather than attack) humankind; the gryphon is one such creature, but what if it were a giant? Something like humans, but bigger? My first thought is that humanity would rather protect itself and that there would be great honour to whomever slayed the giant (because we are arrogant and often don’t trust what is there to protect us, right?). However, even more provocative questions are “who will protect you when the giant is gone? And what were they protecting you from that you never even saw? And was removing your guardian even a good idea?” And my favourite one: “What happens now?”
(And if you think that humanity doesn’t behave that way, look no further than Brexit).
You might also be thinking that this sounds a whole lot like the plot to Team Ico’s 2005 release Shadow of the Colossus for PlayStation 2 and you’d be right. In fact, there’s a great big quote for you about two-thirds of the way in. I drew a lot of inspiration from the game’s narrative (including the piece’s title), but especially from the music. I studied Gus Tredwell’s (The Slow Pianist on YouTube) piano transcriptions and looked at how all of that music was put together. The title Colossus implies a Greek sensibility, as opposed to “giant” or “jotun” or something, so all of that is in there.
Even the structure has a Shadow of the Colossus element to it: It starts strong, but there is a long slow build as the giantslayer traverses the landscape, gradually growing in intensity as the colossus gets clearer into view, despite still being far away. When the battle finally engages (with the band restating the opening motive), the music is dark and dramatic until the hero takes the upper hand, when it gets epic and victorious. That last section, however, is very short and where we expect a triumphant ending, we get an unsettled ending, as though we may have done something we shouldn’t have.
Musically, I’m pretty outside of my comfort zone here. There’s a lot of diminished and augmented harmony in the first half as dissonances stack through the band. The second half of the piece is quite chromatic over pedal tones, so the different sections feel more like key areas and less like harmonic motion from chord to chord (slow harmonic motion is something I really worked on throughout the piece).
So, I hope you enjoy it and, if you want to play it, send me a note (in the “Contact” field) and let me know!
The Winnipeg Wind Ensemble is premiering my new work, “Icelandic Folk Song Suite,” on May 3rd and 4th! Hope you can make it out!
The May 3rd premiere takes place at Gimli High School in my hometown of Gimli, MB, Canada. They will be joined by the Gimli High School Senior Concert Band, which is really crazy because that’s the band I grew up in. For me, it’s a day comprised of my musical upbringing – from concert band to composing. I’m super grateful for everyone who’s making that day possible.
The May 4th premiere is in Jubilee Place at MBCI in Winnipeg, MB on Music Monday (which is also cool). That building is such a terrific venue and we’re recording it that evening – again, so grateful for the WWE for recording it. Full of grate.
Today is the last day of my sabbatical. Who would’ve thought 150 days would blow by so quickly?
It’s been a very productive five months, though, and I thought that I’d share some of my favourite events and projects from my sabbatical time.
1) Premiering Morgun with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra
There is something very surreal about getting to work with some of the best musicians in your community. Writing something for the WSO has always been something of an unattainable goal in my musical life. I always sensed that they were on a different level than I am (and they really are), but a select few people with the right connections took a risk on me and, before I knew it, I had the commission – paid for and all.
While the premiere was amazing, I’ll never forget the moment that they started rehearsing it. Both the conductor and the ensemble were in plain clothes and only Matthew Patton (composer and curator of the Winnipeg New Music Festival, which all of you should attend), Peter Johnson (editor of the Lögberg Heimskringla newspaper), Vikingur Ólafsson (the amazing Icelandic pianist with whom I had the privilege of sharing the concert) and I were in the hall. When the strings started stacking the harmony through those opening measures, there was a feeling of awe and beauty like I’ve never felt before.
I’ll write more about the experience later on because there’s just so much to say. It is quite surprising where music takes you. Here are some pictures from the premiere!
2) Meeting Maddy’s Mom
During the summer, I was asked to write a piece to commemorate the life of Madison Fleming, a 10th-grader from Olds, AB who had died suddenly just after school had been dismissed for the summer. While the research was emotional, I was hardly prepared to walk into this girl’s home and sit with her Mom, Pam.
I wrote about the experience in Olds in an earlier post, but I didn’t write about meeting Pam – I’m not sure why, I just didn’t. Her house was beautiful and well-kept and she greeted us at the door. She had a friend with her and they were clearly talking about Maddy before Karri (the band teacher and commissioner) and I arrived, but she still smiled as she led us inside.
While looking at pictures and hearing stories, it was clear that the family was so happy and fulfilled before Maddy died. While she was a fighter, she had her whole family behind her and they cherished every moment. When you see pictures of the family at the lake or at her baseball game, there was a sense that no time was ever wasted, but instead was genuinely spent together.
Pam is a profoundly kind person and you know as soon as you see her. She just brings an energy of warmth wherever she goes and I think about her family often. It is quite surprising where music takes you. #Kindnessmatters
It took me a few weeks to really realize how transformative my time at the Banff Centre really was. I worked so hard, I was exhausted, I was bitchy in the middle of it, but it was so worth it. I met some incredible human beings, some wonderful musicians, and I got to work full-time on music for an ensemble for which I’d never written before.
Some of the people I got to meet:
Sammy, Kelsey, Abby and Neil
These lovely ladies, Kelsey and Jodi
Here’s Abby, Jodi and Kenna, as well as Team Australia (Jessica and Xina, who are some of my very favourites)
And so many others too! Including the wonderful Sarah Slean, who is also one of my very, very favourite human beings.
I play Dungeons & Dragons with someone who is very serious about the Warhammer 40K universe, but particularly the Horus Heresy origin story of it. When I found out that Complex Games had gotten the rights to make a game set in that universe, I was hoping that I could write for it and, thankfully, I was the guy.
The advance for the contract was almost-entirely spent on upgrading my instrument libraries. I knew that what I had wasn’t good enough for a game of that scope and depth, so I took inventory of what I needed and went up from there.
That being said, I’m super proud of the game and I’m quite pleased with the score. We worked really hard on it and it took many resubmissions to get it right, but we definitely got it. You can pick it up here if you want to check it out!
5) Finishing the “Icelandic Folk Song Suite”
It was the hardest thing I ever wrote – and by “hardest,” I mean the most technically complicated and harmonically complex. It’s Level 5 (second hardest level in Concert Band music), four movements and eleven minutes long. I had it kicking around in my head for about a year, but I knew that I had to get it down, I just needed the time…
And it took about six solid months. Granted, I didn’t work on it every day, but it was always there writing itself in my head as I was doing other things.
There is so much more I could write about (getting published in The Teacher, for example), but there’s something to be said for just having the time and energy to do things right. Not to be rushed to finish a commission or a game contract, but just having the time to make it as great as it can be.
I am so grateful to my school and school division for allowing me to take one semester to write.
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.
This is one of my favourite one-liners. It just says so much in so little (the mark of a good one-liner, I say!):
– It tells the musicians to ramp their awareness.
– It encourages them to focus their attention on something.
– It reinforces them to take a greater responsibility for the whole…
As musicians, it’s so easy to get lost in our part, especially if it’s technical. But if you’re playing an ensemble and aren’t the soloist, it doesn’t matter how well you can play your part if it’s not going to coalesce with the rest of the ensemble. I know that I’m not really saying anything new, but the harder I try and solve the problem, the less I realize that it’s probably an easy solution that’s solved by not by the band playing harder, but listening harder.
Even when I’m playing in an ensemble, I constantly have to remind myself to listen to the people around me, and I bet the kids in the ensemble need it too.
We’ve been working on articulation like crazy in my Jr. Symphonic band. Okay, that’s a half truth – we’ve been practicing “reading the whole notation,” not just reading rhythms, then dynamics, then articulation, but drawing awareness to all of those parts of the notes… but the lynchpin is always articulation. It always got better when we would isolate sections and all I’d say is “listen for the articulation,” then it was fixed.
It wasn’t about fixing, but about awareness. Now pull the awareness to other aspects that you’re working on in your performance: Pitch, tempo, shape, etc.
Maybe it’s not about more rehearsal, maybe just more awareness… and more listening.
Anyway, I don’t pretend to be the master, but this is something I’ve been thinking about!
Your homework: Try and it for a week or two and see what your class does. How do they respond? Do the elements that you’re working on improve or stay the same?
Let me know!
PS: I have the BEST VGM Wednesday this week! I’m SO excited!
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.
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 🙂
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.
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?
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.
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.
Then I extracted all of the parts and go through them, one by one, doing the same formatting on them (dynamics, articulations, etc.).
Then a quick print, proofread again. Oh, probably forgot something here…
Okay… maybe… this is it? Ugh, this crescendo slipped down too far in the Horn 2 part.
… 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!