Friday, February 22, 2013

The Butterfly and the Orchestra

UPDATE: Sorry, this got posted by accident before it was quite finished!

I've recently had a fascinating experience as a composer: I just finished my first piece for orchestra. Bizarre, I know. I should have been writing for orchestra all along. Let me trace out my peculiar career as a composer for you.

I was drawn to composition before I even knew it existed. When I was nine years old, the first time I saw someone playing while reading music (on piano) I immediately sat in a corner and tried to copy the notation to see how it worked. Years later, when I was writing a lot of songs, I taught myself to read music so I could write out orchestral parts for my songs. At this point I had had no training at all and had not yet actually discovered classical music, so I didn't really know what I was doing.

The discovery of classical music and the subsequent devotion of all my efforts to learning to be a classical guitar virtuoso took up most of my energy for quite a while. But I did, from time to time, compose the occasional piece of music, just as I would now and then sit down and write a poem. Both of these activities just seemed a normal part of existence. To this day I am amazed to meet someone who has never tried to write poetry. Did they not have a troubled adolescence?

One of the first composers that I really tried to emulate was Claude Debussy and to this day I feel a special affinity for his music and methods. Another composer that made a huge impact on my thinking was Steve Reich. Only once did I ever try to write a 12-tone piece--that kind of approach just never appealed to me, intuitively. Though I think of myself as being very rational and analytical, when it comes to artistic creativity, I am very intuitive. Oscar Ghiglia commented on my playing that it is completely intuitive. I think it was even a compliment...

I have usually written for guitar, simply because it is my instrument. For many years I focused on chamber music with guitar because I like playing chamber music and there is a shortage of good chamber music with guitar. I have written for flute and guitar, viola and guitar, two guitars, voice and guitar, violin and viola and guitar and guitar orchestra. After hearing my songs for voice and guitar premiered I suddenly got the urge to write a piece for orchestra. It is an overture about six minutes long.

Now here is the interesting thing: it is not more difficult to write for orchestra than it is to write for guitar. I found it to be easier. So much easier, in fact, that I felt like a butterfly escaping from a cocoon! For decades I have been trying to squeeze musical ideas into the rather restricting box of what is feasible on guitar. This is undoubtedly another reason I wrote a lot of chamber music. It is just damned hard to fit things on solo guitar! So the experience of writing for orchestra was like going for a roller-coaster ride, or sky-diving. It was just a big thrill! I write a line for violins and it just soars. I add on the violas and cellos and it soars even more grandly!

The art of composing has a lot of components to it, but where it starts is with an idea, a motif, a rhythm, a harmony. If I don't have to filter everything through the screen of what is possible on guitar, then composition becomes a wider-ranging activity. As soon as I finished the piece for orchestra (which I hope to have performed next season) I started a string quartet.

Here is the opening of the piece for orchestra:

I decided to write an overture because it is a form of modest duration--this one is about six minutes long--and there are some guiding precedents. There are slow and fast sections, for example. But otherwise, I just let it unfold. There is a kind of contrasting section--a development?--in the middle that consists of six layers of hemiola. That is something I took from a rhythmic study I wrote for guitar a few years ago that had three layers of hemiola. At the end, I create a sense of finality using only rhythmic means. Even though I write tonal music these days (well, more modal, actually), I don't feel that cadences have a functionality any more. Anyway, while the piece isn't perfect, I do basically like it and I look forward to hearing it played by real musicians instead of my music software.

Now, let's hear another overture, from The Barber of Seville, by Rossini. Rossini is often under-rated as a composer, but he shouldn't be:

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