Friday, September 30, 2011

History of a Composition

I've been a composer nearly all my life, but for most of that time composition has had a distinctly secondary role. Often I composed simply because I needed repertoire for a certain combination of instruments. I have a good friend who is a fine violist and there is absolutely no good repertoire for viola and guitar so I have written a couple of pieces. I used to coach guitar ensembles and discovered that even after months or years of rehearsal, it is extremely difficult to get multiple guitars to play exactly together. Just listen to a recording of Julian Bream and John Williams. I wrote one piece that was an etude in ensemble, but that succeeded more in demonstrating the problem than in solving it. Finally I decided to write a piece for guitar ensemble that would pose no ensemble problems: the guitars would simply not be required to play together! Here is the piece:

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

Let me explain how this works: there is a conductor who cues the beginning and the progress through the piece. The score is a flow-chart. You start at the top and follow the lines, therefore everyone plays the top box, but then you have a choice of one of the two boxes below. That top box is a rather odd effect where, by crossing the 6th and 5th strings over one another and holding with the left hand and then by playing rasgueado (a kind of flamenco strumming) you get a nicely noisy, chaotic sound. I premiered this with an ensemble of ten guitars and having all ten start with that is a nice shock to the audience. With the next level down, all the guitars are either playing Bartok 'snap' pizzicatos or harmonics. As we move through the piece, pitched notes gradually predominate until at the ending we hear only melody. The way I conduct it, I keep going back to that opening chaotic gesture which I bring back in by cuing one or more guitars to return to that box, threatening to overwhelm whatever is going on. I end the piece by having a few guitars move to the final box, #10, while most stay with the chords on #9. Then I mix in more and more of box #1 until the melody is lost in the chaos. Then I chop off everyone except the guitars playing the melody and let it just float around and trail off...

It is actually pretty effective in concert and, since no-one has to worry about ensemble, they can, theoretically, be more creative.

The music obviously has flamenco influences as we can see from the chords of #6 and #7. I have never analyzed the piece, it was written purely from instinct.

The original title was "Forms" which is quite appropriate as the piece can have many different forms and will be different every time you play it. It is really a kind of toolbox for building a piece from scratch with the contents laid out, but with the flow determined completely by the conductor and players. I changed the title when it was published together with two other pieces for guitar ensemble because I had this great title and the piece it was supposed to be the title of never got past the sketch stage. It was originally going to be a 'string quartet' for mandolin, guitar, harpsichord and double bass.

I have a recording of this piece and if I get a chance to convert it to a digital file I will update this post with it.

But in the meantime, comments?

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