Monday, November 26, 2007

Mask of the Composer

Thanksgiving break was wonderful. Did pretty much nothing academic and caught up on lots of sleep. And, for the first time in over 2 months, I had inspiration to compose a little more on a couple of my pieces that have been on hold. For the first time in a long while, I donned my Mask of the Composer.

Now, it's a very amateurish mask, and I contend that anyone who knows any semblance of music theory and has a creative mind can compose something. That said, very few people compose well, and I don't profess to compose well. I do it for fun as it's another creative outlet, and I can hear "potential" in my pieces, but I don't have the training and technical expertise to make them sound great. Anyway, here's my Mask.
I guess I started composing my senior year of high school. I've only composed for instruments I either know how to play (piano and cello) or know how to play in theory (violin and viola). So I've mostly only composed for these 4 instruments. I use a free program called Finale Notepad 2004 that I downloaded off their site on the internet. The full version of Finale costs too much, though my brother was somehow able to pirate a few copies (a whole lot of good that does him, as it expires after 30 days without a valid authentication key).

Anyway, I've composed many pieces, and every semester starting my second semester of freshman year we (my string trio) has played at least 1 piece I've composed. Music for string trio (violin, viola, and cello) is unusually hard to come by, particularly good music. Most trio music are for violin, piano, and cello. Poor viola. So I thought, why not compose something that'll at least be fun to play? And that I did. To date, most of my pieces have been for string trio. I once tried to compose a trio for electric guitar, piano, and cello. Thanks to my friend, MS-M, I knew (in theory) how to compose for guitar; however, since I don't play the guitar (electric or otherwise), I composed intervals that were near-impossible to physically play. Alas. I compose on average about 1-2 pieces per semester. There are also many other pieces that I've started but haven't finished (and maybe never will).

Currently I'm working mainly on 3 pieces: one for a string trio, one for a cello quartet, and one for a string sextet (2 violins, 2 violas, 2 cellos). The string trio piece will be played next semester for sure, and it's aptly titled "Farewell." The history behind that piece is obvious enough. It's my last semester of undergrad. Also, it's partly to commemorate my friend who passed away last year, as well as a friend who went from majoring in MSE (material science engineering) to becoming a nun over the summer (and now we never hear from her anymore). It utilizes a lot of chords and sustains in A minor. I think it sounds pretty good thus far. "Hymn" is the working title for the cello quartet, though that'll likely change somewhat later. It follows a similar style as the string trio. Now, the sextet - that's a beast to compose. I may never fully understand how the great classical composers wrote such amazing symphonies, as it's hard enough to coordinate 6 instruments! Anyway, the title of the sextet is "String Alchemy."

Composing Philosophy
I believe that every composer has some kind of philosophy when composing. Mine has been fairly simple: no instrument, part, or piece will be overly repetitive. I've listened to too many modern songs where it's basically an exposition, several refrains, then an ending. Such a boring structure. And I've played many pieces in my life where the cello part is the same damn thing for almost the entire piece. And I also pity the viola. They too often get offbeats, syncopations, and arpeggios. Now, arpeggios are fairly cool . . . until you've played them for a page, then it gets old.

So my composing philosophy is to never subject an instrument to that. That's quite a challenge though, because you need the repetitive parts to create certain effects. My earlier pieces don't have that forward moving drive because the cello and viola parts lack the repetitive parts. So the direction of the piece relies solely on the players as a unit because there's no internal mechanism from keeping it going.

My later pieces utilize more repetitive parts, though not for very long in any particular instrument. The repetitive "beat-keeping" parts move between the three instruments, though it's still mostly kept to the cello and viola. It's a decent compromise. I like to have my pieces where everyone gets melody and everyone gets harmony at some point.

It's still difficult though, as things are limited by instrumentation and how they sound. Obviously where the cello's the lowest instrument, it must be the foundation of sound from which the other instruments build upon. Thus it must either keep beat in its lower register or have long sustained notes. Sigh, the very things I dislike playing. At least when I compose these pieces I'll have no one to blame but myself. But, when the instrumentation is like 4 cellos, things get much more interesting. For one, the bottom base part can easily switch between all 4 cellos, and it has the added effect (though this only applies in proximity of the performers) of hearing different parts being switched and played from different members of the group. It's kind of cool if, say, the "first" cellist is playing the melody one second only to have the "fourth" cellist playing it the next second.

Now, there are many composition forms. There are preludes, there are fugues, there are toccatas, there are chorales, there are ABA/ABBA/ABCBA sonata forms, there are etudes, there are tarantellas, and the list goes on. I haven't explored most of these, partly because I don't know where to begin and what to do. It's somewhat difficult, even in this internet age, to find "rules" of composing in these forms.

I was, however, fairly successful in composing a fugue last fall semester. It was called (uninspiringly) "Windchaser Fugue." Currently, the pieces I'm working on probably most closely resembles chorales, but only for parts of the pieces. Hmm, I wonder if there are "rules" for chorales . . . probably. One day, I may try to revisit the idea of composing a "suite" like Bach did. It would include a prelude, a sarabande, and a courante for sure. Those are fairly simple ideas. One day maybe. I may also go back to pieces I've already composed and make them sound better with the benefit of retrospection and experience.
So I basically only compose when I'm struck by inspiration, which happens at the strangest times (like 2am, I composed an entire piece between 2-3am every night for like a month - it's aptly titled "Early Morn Inspiration"). I've also noticed that inspiration only comes when there's time for it, and when it does, it comes in waves.

I'll get a sudden urge that'll last a few hours, then it'll disappear for days, even weeks. So I'll compose maybe a page or two (rarely) in a single day/night, then won't compose on that piece again for maybe a month. It's strange how that works, but then again, this is a very strange (and incomplete) mask I wear.

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