Saturday, June 9, 2018

Composing Outside the Lines (or within)

My first lesson with composer Tania Leon was something that would change my approach to composition forever. Professor Leon asked me to define a line (actually, she gave me a week to think about it and return with a definition). I was confused as to what this could possibly mean aside from a straight line between points A and B. When I returned for my second lesson, we discussed the various definitions of a line – particularly in the context of music. To illustrate the endless possibilities, Professor Leon drew a squiggly line on paper and then asked, “how would you notate this?” I remember thinking I wasn’t clear on exactly how to represent the shape before me, but soon realized this was an introduction to the concept of representing sound through notation in a way that expresses the organic shape of a musical line - beyond approximating the shape via conventional rhythmic notation, etc. The point of the lesson was to utilize notation in a manner that expresses the exact, organic shape of the musical idea in your head. It can mean anything from graphic notation (if this effectively conveys the idea) as well as micro subdivisions of the beat....but accurately executed! The latter can be a painstaking process as organically conceived rhythms often look complex when notated correctly on paper. However, this concept is crucial for pure, unadulterated compositional thought…especially in an environment where notation software can make it easy to input the closest sounding conventional rhythm. The concept of representing a line exactly as it appears forces one to search for the notation that will communicate that which sounds free and natural….almost in the manner of an improvisation. In a sense, the concept of “defining a line” deals with every conceivable musical shape beyond a straight line. As a suggestion, try singing your organic idea and recording it. Then transcribe the audio exactly as your hear it without altering the natural rhythm.  Notation programs such as Sibelius or Finale make it easy to select an idea which is “close enough”; however, truly complex rhythms require all sorts of manipulation and editing (not to mention a firm grasp of math in terms of note value and subdivisions – especially in the area of nested triplets / groupings, etc.). This approach will bring you closer to expressing your original ideas more accurately and also force you to think about what it is you really want to say as a composer. 

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Percussion ensemble in the 21st Century: An orchestral vision

As a family of instruments, percussion is constantly growing and evolving in the orchestra as well as with other ensembles. Having grown up as a percussionist, I’ve played in many percussion ensembles observing changes in the repertoire over the years – from the types of instruments used to the style of composition. Although there are many pieces that focus on small sections of the percussion family (groups of three or four), the available number of players in a college setting, and even professional percussion groups, ranges from 3 – 12 or more. In the university setting, pieces for large ensemble are accommodated by combining both undergraduate and graduate students (which is often done) as well as the use of outside players. This flexibility allows composers to explore the multitude of percussion instruments, thereby creating a more colorful pallet. That said, it makes sense for composers to think of the percussion ensemble as an orchestra and not just a choir within the orchestra. When one considers the variety of instruments from pitched (e.g. marimba, vibraphone, glockenspiel, xylophone, timpani etc.) to non-pitched (snare drums, concert toms, cymbals, triangle, gong, etc.) it is possible to group the instruments in sections much like an orchestra. Add to this the unending list of instruments adopted from other cultures (Djembe, Cajon, dumbek, congas, Bohran, dulcimer etc.) as well as the piano and diversity within each area of membranophones, idiophones and aerophones becomes limitless!