Sunday, December 12, 2010

Americans We

An Introductory and Annotated Listening List From America’s Musical Heritage
by Steve Matchett
Flag and Map by Jasper Johns

I wanted to provide a list of pieces to help introduce my friends to the American classical music repertory.  I’m very concerned that most people out there don’t know much about America’s classical music and its history.  I can’t imagine that any school children in Russia don’t know the names Glinka, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich, or Prokofiev.  I heard an interview with Simon Rattle on the Charlie Rose show a few years ago.  He made a statement that really spoke to me.  To paraphrase it, he said “European countries define themselves by their classical music.”  There are deep cultural reasons that this is so, but I think that our musical culture should be just as important to us.  America has exported Jazz and Rock to all corners of the world, but there are aspects of musical expression that these two forms have a difficult time expressing.  They tend toward a highly personal expression, often in simple terms.  Jazz, and Rock to a smaller degree, have absorbed influences from classical music, and classical music around the world has certainly absorbed the influences of these forms.  This is a process of cultural overlap, and exchange, which is too large a subject for me to discuss here.  The lack of cultural education in our schools is appalling.  The kids who are fortunate enough to participate in school music programs learn about some of the composers that I list below, especially in secondary school.  I think that ALL children of school age should learn about these cultural figures just like they learn about Hawthorne, Thoreau, or Whitman.  Cultural literacy is just as important as literacy in math and science, and without it we can’t be complete citizens.

The Art of the States website has recordings of many composers.
For most of the recordings I would recommend iTunes or to at least hear some audio clips.

Shown by category chronologically:

Orchestra Music

Symphony No. 2 in B-flat major (1886) by George W. Chadwick
This piece is very much a romantic work in the Brahms/Dvorak vein, and predates Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony of 1893.

Variations on America (1891) by Charles Ives, orchestrated by William Schuman
The tune “My County Tis of Thee” appears in many guises in this tongue-in-cheek romp.  The work was for organ in its original version and really challenges the skills of the performer.  Schuman also made a version for band.

The Unanswered Question (1906) by Charles Ives
This philosophical work was described by Ives himself as a “cosmic landscape.”  Ives was very influenced by the Transcendentalist Poets, and this piece contemplates the question of existence using wordless music.

The Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan (1917) by Charles Tomlinson Griffes
Griffes is America’s impressionistic composer, and this work reflects the impressionists’ fascination with exotic subjects and orientalism.

An American in Paris (1928) by George Gershwin
This travel fantasy is one of the great symphonic works.  Gershwin provokes so many of the sounds, sights, and emotions of visiting a great city.  A movie of the same name (1951) stars Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron, and Oscar Levant.

Symphony No. 2 “Romantic” (1930) by Howard Hanson
Hanson was unabashedly emotional in his music during a period when procedural modernism was dominating all the academic circles.  This piece is a great introduction to his music and aesthetic.

Grand Canyon Suite (1931) by Ferde Grofé
This multi-movement tone poem (tone-picture would be more appropriate), reflects on America’s awe-inspiring natural wonder. Grofé’s colorful orchestration illustrates his skills gained as a jazz arranger.  This iconic piece has drama and some humor in the solo violin depiction of the braying donkey in the third movement “On the Trail.”  Other movements are I. Sunrise, II. The Painted Desert,  IV. Sunset, and V. Cloudburst.

Overture to “The School for Scandal” (1931) by Samuel Barber
This is an amazing work, especially considering that it was written by such a young composer.  This piece went a long way in launching Barber’s career as a composer.  This is a concert overture and takes it name and influence of the comic play of the same name.

Symphony No. 1 “Afro-American” (1931) by William Grant Still
Still draws on the melodic style of black culture, and brings to life a disciplined, knowledgeable, and heartfelt orchestral landscape.  Gershwin drew on the same sources for Porgy and Bess and its hard not to relate Still’s work to Gershwin’s for this reason.  However Still’s Symphony predates Porgy and Bess by at least 4 years.  There’s no question that Still knew and performed Gershwin’s famous songs from the 20’s.

Cuban Overture (1932) by George Gerswhin
This is the composer’s symphonic portrayal of Cuban jazz.  It is very high energy.
Compare this to other Latin American inspired works—El Salon Mexico by Aaron Copland, and “America” from West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein.  Gershwin’s very “showy” style is obvious here.

Adagio for Strings (1938) by Samuel Barber
This emotionally moving music has become a famous work for expressing grief.  It was performed at Ground Zero just after 9/11 and at the funeral of Princess Grace, just to name two occasions.  The version for string orchestra is an expansion of the slow movement from Barber’s String Quartet.

Billy the Kid (1938) by Aaron Copland
This is a ballet about the gunslinger.  This work is most often performed as a concert work, rather than staged.

Symphony No 3 (1938) by Roy Harris
This symphony is in one movement and shows Harris’ very open and shifting modal sounds and direct rhetorical style.  This piece established his reputation, and reflects the vastness of the western landscape and spirit of the heartland.

Suite from “Rodeo” (1942)  by Aaron Copland
These pieces incorporate several important cowboy songs.  The “Hoe-Down” movement is always instantly recognizable because of its use in commercials and as theme music.

A Lincoln Portrait (1942)  by Aaron Copland
It’s hard to believe that this work for narrator and orchestra was banned for performance at Eisenhower’s inaugural in 1952.  Copland had associations with socialists in the 1930’s and was called forth during the Red Scare to account for himself before McCarthy’s committee.  Copland was never really a political person, music was always the complete focus of his life. This is such an irony for someone who represented American culture all over the world during his lifetime.

Appalcahian Spring (1944) by Aaron Copland
This work is originally for chamber orchestra, but is heard more often in the version for symphony orchestra.  It’s incorporation of the Shaker Hymn Tune “The Gift to Be Simple” is another iconic symbol in American culture.

Overture to “Candide” (1957) by Leonard Bernstein
Bernstein wrote his opera based on Voltaire’s farce Candide.  His overture reflects on the youthful exuberance of the composer himself.  This piece ranks very high on the appeal meter!  This piece has also been transcribed for band by Clare Grundman.

Musical Theater and Opera

Treemonisha (1910) by Scott Joplin
Few know that Joplin, who was the king of Ragtime, wrote two operas.  This opera was not performed in Joplin’s lifetime and his score only existed in piano form.  It has been orchestrated into different versions by various composers and given many performances in the U.S.. Houston Grand Opera did a very important revival and recording of the work in the 1970’s.  Treemonisha is a young black woman who fights to overcome the superstition and ignorance of her plantation community.

Porgy and Bess (1934) music by George Gershwin, libretto by Dubose Heyward, lyrics by Ira Gershwin
This opera was an affront to the cultural elite with its all African-American cast.  The songs “Summertime,” “Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So” have become song staples and the score is buoyant and full of energy.  The opera had an important tour in the 1950’s.  Houston Grand Opera did an important revival of it in 1976.

Regina (premiered 1949) by Marc Blitzstein
Based on the Lillian Hellman play The Little Foxes.  Blitzstein was very outspoken with his leftist politics, like so many artists who went through the Great Depression.  There is no denying his skill as a composer and this work has some brilliant and beautiful musical numbers.  This work walks the line between Musicals and Opera.

The King and I (1951) music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
This musical should always be performed with the original full orchestration.
Contains the songs, “I Whistle a Happy Tune” “Getting to Know You” and “The March of the Siamese Children.”  It also contains an incredible show within the show, “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” ballet.

West Side Story (1957) music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, script by Arthur Laurens
also Symphonic Dances from “West Side Story”
A modern urban take on the Romeo and Juliet story of young love.  Bernstein  contributed a lot of songs to the repertory in this musical—“Maria”, “Somewhere”, and “Tonight” are just a few.  The score is heavily jazz based, with a lot of Latin rhythm contained as well.

Band Music

The Stars and Stripes Forever (1896) by John Philip Sousa
This iconic march was designated by Congress as the national march of the United States.  It has represented America well around the world, and no 4th of July pops concert can happen without it.  The trio section was actually given lyrics by Sousa.  Others have done their own lyrics and the work has been parodied all around the world.  This is a sign of just how iconic and well known it is.

George Washington Bridge (1950) by William Schuman
This is a starkly powerful work about a majestic landmark.

Psalm for Band (1952) by Vincent Persichetti
This is a very moving piece by one of our most skilled composers and makes a good introduction to his very personal style.

American Overture (1956) by Joseph Wilcox Jenkins
This is very appealing piece that features the horns in a big way.  It has a lot of Americana contained in it and depicts, at least somewhat referentially, the American West, cowboys and Indians—and John Wayne is probably in there somewhere.

Variations on a Korean Folksong (1965) by John Barnes Chance
The composer was also a native of Texas.  He was stationed in Korea and this work came as a result of his time there.  He was himself a percussionist and his superb percussion writing is very much on display in this piece.  This piece is also an example of the interest in exotic and Eastern influences for Western artists.

Sketches on a Tudor Psalm (1972) by Fisher Tull
A very different setting of Thomas Tallis’ music than the work for strings by Vaughn Williams.  Tull was a Texas native and this is his most performed work for band and a staple in the band repertory.  I include it here to pay tribute to my teacher and mentor.

Solo Works with Orchestra

Schelomo for cello and orchestra (1916) by Ernest Bloch

Bloch’s music gives voice to his Jewish heritage.  In this moving work, the cello takes on the role of King Solomon (Schelomo) with the orchestra portraying the world at large.  The piece was inspired by the book of Ecclesiastes from the Bible, and reflects on the lamentations found there.

Poem for flute and orchestra (1919) by Charles Tomlinson Griffes
Griffes took a cue from Claude Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun in writing this piece for flute.  The flute part is sensuous, expressive and virtuostic.

Rhapsody in Blue (1924) by George Gershwin, orchestrated by Ferde Grofé
Lush sounds, jazz age sensibilities, piano virtuosity—one of the great American contributions to the symphonic literature.

Concerto in F for piano and orchestra (1925) by George Gershwin
Like all of Gershwin’s concert music this one also has a lot of jazz influence.  In the movie American in Paris, Oscar Levant humorously fancies himself as the piano soloist (as he really was), and also as playing all the instruments of the orchestra as well as being the conductor of this piece.  It’s a funny tribute to egomania using a serious piece of music.

Clarinet Concerto (1949) by Aaron Copland
This piece is also dubbed the “Benny Goodman” concerto since it was commissioned by Benny Goodman and first performed by him.  The last movement is colored with jazz figurations in honor of its famous dedicatee.

Chamber music

Sonata eroica (1895) for solo piano by Edward MacDowell
MacDowell is an extremely important composer for piano.  His Woodland Sketches are still played regularly by young piano students.

Concord Sonata for solo piano (1915 premiered 1938) by Charles Ives
Each movement is titled in honor of the transcendentalists that Ives admired so much.
I. Emerson, II. Hawhorne, III. The Alcotts, IV. Thoreau.
Ives wrote a literary work, Essays Before a Sonata, which discusses and outlines his aesthetic ideas that go with this piece.

String Quartet in one movement (1921) by Amy Beach
This is a pensive work by this important composer of chamber music and art songs.

Quintet for Winds (1986) by Robert Muczynski
This is a fine piece written in a neo-classic style.  The harmonies and rhythms are quite modern and adept.  The composer recently passed away in May 2010.  He was of Polish decent and born in Chicago.

Works by Living Composers

Tournaments (1965) by John Corigliano b.1938
This wide ranging composer has very keen skills in all areas of composition—concert music, films, chamber music and opera.
Also by John Corigliano: an opera The Ghosts of Versailles, Black November Turkey for string quartet, Gazebo Dances for both orchestra and band, and the film score to The Red Violin.

Symphony: Water Music [Symphony No. 1] (1985) by Libby Larsen b.1950
I imagine this piece as music for sailing on the Great Lakes, clear skies, wind in the hair, speed over the water.  This is a very nice piece with fresh sounds and interesting orchestration!
Also by Libby Larsen:  Songs of Youth and Pleasure

A Short Ride in a Fast Machine (1986) by John Adams b.1947
This piece is a good introduction to Adams’ whirling style.
Also by John Adams: an opera Doctor Atomic

Piano Sonata (1999) by Alex Shapiro b.1962
This piece has a powerfully self-contained and mystical sense to it, at the same time very robust and challenging.
Alex is a skilled and positive spokesperson, interviewee, and essayist for new music.  Her musical experience is wide ranging in the commercial and serious music fields, which she bridges with ease.
Also by Alex Shapiro: Paper Cut for band, Introspect for string quartet, Bioplasm for flute quartet, Current Events for string quintet

blue cathedral (2000) by Jennifer Higdon b.1962
Higdon was just awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Music in 2010 for her Violin Concerto.

An American Place (2002) by Kenneth Fuchs b.1956
I was introduced to Mr. Fuchs’ music through this piece.  For me it’s a tribute and updating of the grand rhetoric of the American composers of the 1930’s and 40’s; expertly composed and colorfully orchestrated.
Also by Kenneth Fuchs, String Quartet No. 4 “Bergonzi”

Te Deum (premiered 2007) by Mark Hayes b.1953
Mr. Hayes is a very active composer, pianist and performer.  His prolific output of sacred music, both in arrangements and original works, has had a strong influence throughout the country.  His distinct talents and uplifting message have inspired congregations and concert goers.

© 2010 Steve D. Matchett

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Surveying Tonality and Atonality - In Their Thinking

  • For Bartók tonality was sociological - he concluded that the peasantry (as the agent of nature) would never develop atonalism in their folk music.  Through folk music, many composers discovered new modalities and possibilities.  Bartók integrated these modalities (raw materials) into his personal style.
  • For Schoenberg tonality was an artistic dead end (for him personally)–and an area he felt he perhaps could no longer compose in and distinguish himself–his psychology is very curious.  The twelve-tone method is tied to his personal Expressionist artistic aesthetic.
  • For Stravinsky tonality was historical.  Some have reasonably argued that atonal serialism was also historical for him when he took it up later.  Personally though he had reached his own creative crises and needed to explore new procedures when he turned to serialism.  He expanded the procedural vocabulary of serial music in the same way that he had for tonality. 
  • For Hindemith tonality was an natural acoustic phenomenon.  The "system" of composition he developed expanded tonality greatly and generated his very personal style.
  • For Ives tonality and atonality (or music as a whole) was his means of artistic experimentation.  The experimentation that he learned from his father was what drove his compositional creativity.  The world (or at least the "new world") wasn't ready for his experiments.
  • For Shostakovich and Prokofiev tonality was the dictate and constriction of the state.  Both men were able to write wonderful music despite their lack of freedom to experiment.  "Formalism," as defined by the state, did not serve the society and it was demanded by the state that it be avoided.  I feel that both composers (and their Soviet colleagues) expanded tonality and gained distinctive and recognizable style traits because of it.
  • For Milhaud tonality [or tonalities] was/were musical object(s) to be combined and tried in combinations.  He experimented extensively on bitonality to discover sounds and methods he wanted to use.
  • For Rochberg tonality was an expressive necessity and a natural biological/neurological phenomenon–an efficient way for the human mind to communicate and comprehend.  Having composed serial music for a long time, he turned to a Neo-Romantic tonal style.  Rochberg wrote a great book which elucidates his theories and knowledge of these issues;  The Aesthetics of Survival: A Composer's View of Twentieth-Century Music.
  • For Carter [currently aged 102 and still composing!] atonality seems to be about social commentary and an anti-societal / anti-social stance.  I also think that atonality is an elitist guise for him.  This elitist stance regarding atonality is being replaced, according to theories of postmodernism.
  • For Bernstein tonality was societal / communicative.  He did however use atonality to express chaos and strife when it suited his artistic goals.
  • For Copland (when he took up serialism late in life) dodecaphony was a chance to invent and expand his harmonic palette.  He had such an expansive tonal harmonic palette already, one wonders why he felt he needed to venture into twelve-tone procedures.
  • For the Minimalists tonality just isn't done with, and it is still an ongoing process.  It just needs re-proceduralizing.
  • For me tonality is referential, and I don't practice atonality.  I see atonality as being arbitrarily synthetic.  Having spent most of my life as a pragmatic performing musician, tonality is what I feel promotes my expressive feelings best.  I desire to make beautiful harmonies!  Maybe this reflects on the pragmatic culture that I'm a part of.

© 2010 Steve D. Matchett

"Aqua Abstract" photo by Steve Matchett

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Duke Ellington / Donald Fagen

"Duke Ellington"
sculpture by Robert Graham
Frawley Circle, Manhattan, NYC, USA
I've only been to three rock concerts in my life, one of which I hated and walked out of, one of which I could take or leave, and one that I was glad I went to.  Hearing Steely Dan in Houston a couple years ago, thanks to my sister's invitation, was a lot of fun, nostalgic, etc., but it was also enlightening.  At the front of the stage the back of Donald Fagen's keyboard featured a large photo image of Duke Ellington leading his own orchestra from the piano. Ellington led his own orchestra, just as Fagen leads one of his own, making for a sort of vies parallèles.  Mr. Fagen picked his hero well.  The realization I had though was that these two musicians added so much to the sound of music in America with their compositions.  I was glad the meaning of the photo image wasn't lost on me.  Both were/are amazing innovators of harmony, great songwriters, skilled instrumental arrangers, etc..  Both ran/run incredibly professional outfits, and bring a dignity to performance that is rare in the popular music field.  Today it's all about mindless dance numbers, gimmicks, and slick packaging!  All encompassing talent and true professionalism (with all it's implications) seems so extremely scarce now.  Ellington and Fagen both carved out a unique place that intersected both jazz and popular music circles, but maintained an uncompromising dedication to their own unique musical language.  The Steely Dan show that I saw was nice for one thing - it was all about the music!  Donald Fagen's and Walter Becker's band had stage presence galore, but the music itself reigned.  Of course it did!

Donald Fagan in concert 9/20/2011 in NYC
© 2010 Steve D. Matchett

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Composer and Arranger

Whether arranging a popular song for an instrumental group or making a transcription of one's own original works, there's always a lot to learn through the process of working with pre-existing music.  The skills learned can and should be applied to the process of composing original works.  In fact, most original compositions have a phase in their creation that is very much akin to arranging anyway.  The stage when the generated materials have to be "put in their places" so to speak.  Many of the greatest composers have reworked their music for other formats. 
Alfred Blatter, in his book Instrumentation / Orchestration, describes the difference between transcribing and arranging that I fully agree with.  Transcribing involves moving notes from one medium to another and doing one's best not to change the music's actual content.  Arranging implies the addition of newly composed materials to pre-existing materials and enhancing what was already there.  Below I've tried to define the different ways that composers and writers deal with pre-existing musical materials.  I believe strongly that it's important to use the correct terminology.  "Arranging" should not be used as a misnomer for some of the terms below.

Arrange / Arranging / ArrangementAdding newly composed material to an already existing work–i.e. original introductions, transitions and modulations, re-harmonizations, secondary lines, endings, etc..
Transcribe / Transcribing / Transcription - Expanding, reducing or otherwise changing instrumentation without changing the overall content of a work.  Transposing might also fall under this term.
Orchestrate / Orchestrating / Orchestration - Expanding a work, usually from a piano score, to be for orchestra or another large ensemble (band, dance band)–can be synonymous to transcribing.
Adapt / Adapting / Adaptation - [This one's tricky, I had to look it up.]  This is similar to re-orchestrating or de-orchestrating a work, especially if the composer himself has done it.  For example, reducing an orchestral score for piano so that it can be used in rehearsal, like with ballet or opera.  Concertos are made into piano reductions, so they can receive recital performances.  There is usually some very practical reason for "adapting" the work to a different format.  Other examples: the need to use the instruments that are available at hand; or a reduction done in order to hire less musicians.  [Here's an ugly truth about the bottom line!  Richard Rodger's music is always best with the full orchestrations!!]
Set / Setting (noun and verb) - This usually involves a pre-existing text which is "set" for one or more singers, chorus alone, or chorus and instruments.
Edit / Editing / Edition - Providing new interpretive markings to an existing piece.  This is not arranging, I don't care how many instrumentalists out there claim it is!! [The number of editions (and transcriptions) of the Bach solo cello suites is dizzying!] 
Compile / Compiling / Compilation - The gathering together of music from disparate sources, usually for publication.  This may involve some editing as well.
Here are three other types of procedures:
Extraction / Abbreviation / Medley - [I feel these are related so I grouped them together.]  Examples would be suites derived and abbreviated from larger works, i.e.  Romeo and Juliet Suites 1 & 2 by Prokofiev.  Instrumental movements are extracted, and sometimes altered, from theatrical works for concert performance–opera overtures for example. Medley's are usually significantly arranged and orchestrated as well as extracted.  Examples might be Highlights from "Showboat" or An Irving Berlin Tribute.

Integration / Quotation / Collage - Inserting,  juxtaposing, or overlaying pre-existing materials into a piece–usually the works of others.  So many pieces of Charles Ives fit this category.  Richard Strauss quotes his own music in Ein Heldenleben.
Re-create / Re-creating / Re-creation - Great examples are Stravinsky's ballet Pulcinella (which he also transcribed for cello and piano), and Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.  Here the composer makes the pre-existing materials completely his own through invention and transformation.  The pre-existing music is used as a basis to form something completely original.  These type of works are usually considered original works because of their uniqueness.
In 2005 I wrote a piece for six cellos called Fantasy Variations on "Scarborough Fair."  I created so much material around this medieval tune that I consider the piece to be an original work in the re-creation category.  I started out to write a straightforward arrangement but things got out of hand.
© 2010 Steve D. Matchett

Monday, September 6, 2010

Stravinsky's Dumbarton Oaks Concerto and Cubism in Music

In recent years I have really come to understand Igor Stravinsky's aesthetic as emphasizing construction.  This sounds simplistic because all composers "construct" their music.  What I mean is, in terms of an artistic stance particularly related to both Russian Cubo-Futurism and to Cubism.  His art does not follow the Russian Constructivist idea of art serving the state - Stravinsky was very much about art for art's sake - but his music is very constructivist.

I've been listening a lot to Stravinsky's Dumbarton Oaks Concerto (1938) for chamber orchestra.  To me it's very easy to correlate the fractured lines that occur as being related to a "cubist" structural approach.  The harmonic rhythm happens as passing conglomerates of episodic tonal vocabularies, juxtaposed and blended for the narrative flow.  Stravinsky's harmonic conglomerates are well beyond the framework of traditional functional harmony, and are not just expansions of traditional harmony, but complete reinventions.  Within these conglomerates his melodic content is fragmented and layered in highly controlled confluences.  In music, collage effect sounds random if blending is neglected.  Ives' stark collages and quotations would be a far too crude procedure for Stravinsky.  Stravinsky was a master composer who controlled all elements of the compositional process at once, and always maintained a certain elegance of expression.

The Schoenbergians missed the point of Stravinsky's art of this period by sardonically saying he was trying to take on the guise of "Papa Bach."  Stravinsky wasn't doing Bach, he was reinventing the very nature of counterpoint, in the same way that he reinvented so many aspects of the musical art.  A genius can do this with a major scale just as easily as with a tone row.  The influence of the Cubists on Stravinsky, via Picasso, is mutated to become his reinvention of musical structure.  He fragmented and restructured the sounds, just like the Cubists did with images.  He did this using diatonic tonal frameworks which play against the traditional diatonic hierarchy of tones.  (See Pandiatonic)

In the Dumbarton Oaks Concerto a Bachian orchestra is used, but an aesthetic of cubist-like construction is masterfully given to the orchestra to be puzzled out and balanced.  The fragmentation of melody and instrumental usage can give this music a jagged and slightly frenetic quality.  Since Stravinsky's aesthetic is far removed from Romanticism, those who want soaring destination melodies will always have a hard time with Stravinsky.  His approach towards melody always sounds "modern" since it contrasts itself so much with "melody" as traditional song-like flow.  We get a very instrumental (non-singable) approach towards melody, but one in which the surfaces are still memorable and strangely tuneful, although quite fractured at times.  His writing for winds in this piece is as it always is, composed with such an intimate knowledge of the instrumental capabilities - far beyond the knowledge of most composers.  The concept of instrumentalism is strong with Stravinsky, where the capabilities of the instruments themselves drive the compositional process.  I have always been struck by his use of the bass instruments as punctuators rather than as sustainers of tones.  This is another feature of his music that is anti-Romantic, in that lush thick sounds tend to be avoided.  As in several of his neoclassical period works, we have moments of Rossini-esque bits inserted in collage-like fashion.  This music is delightful, modern, abstract, and joyous all at once.  His music is endlessly fascinating, always pristine, and forever masterful.

I love the quote by Nadia Boulanger about Stravinsky - "He sees what we do not see.  He knows what we do not know."

© 2010 Steve D. Matchett

Robert Craft's recording of the Dumbarton Oaks Concerto with the Orchestra of St. Lukes

Woman Playing a Mandolin
by Pablo Picasso (1909)

Friday, September 3, 2010

Composing for Wind Quintet

I composed my Wind Quintet No. 1 in 2007-08 and learned so much in the process.  The versatility of this ensemble is amazing and there is so much to like about the way the instrumental voices can be used.  I was really motivated after listening to some of the great modern works for this medium.  I had always found the classical era wind quintet pieces too dainty for my taste.  The pieces of Reiche and others however laid a solid foundation on which the repertoire could develop.  I was really excited by Carl Nielsen's famous Wind Quintet, and also works by Hindemith and Irving Fine.  I could hear in these pieces a very powerful and driving use of the instruments, and a great potential for color - both harmonic and instrumental.  After writing my own piece, I discovered works by Muczynski and Maslanka on recordings which went a long way to enhance my appreciation.  I was introduced to other works by the Scirocco Winds through their live performances.  Works by Ewazen and others.  I happened to be in the process of composing my piece when I learned of the Scirocco Winds inaugural concert, and through a very happy turn of events we were able to set up the premiere of my piece on another concert later in the year (Feb. 2009).
My thoughts here are about how the different voicings of the wind quintet that can be used.  The voicing options have more variety than any chamber ensemble that I know of.
The standard voicing structure of the wind quintet looks like this:
Flute - soprano 1
Oboe - soprano 2
Clarinet - soprano 3
Horn - alto
Bassoon - tenor/bass
At first I worried about writing for 3 soprano instruments in a group, but I quickly understood the variety that could be achieved.
The group should really be viewed this way in its variety:
Flute - sop. 1 & 2 / alto 1
Oboe - sop. 2 & 1 / alto 1 & 2
Clarinet - sop. 3 & 2 & 1/ alto 1 & 2 / tenor 1
Horn - alto 1 & 2/ sop. 2 & 3 / tenor 1 & 2 / bass 1 & 2
Bassoon - bass 1 & 2 / ten. 1 & 2 / alto 1 & 2 / sop. 3
One doesn't have to use the extreme registers of the instruments to achieve this much variety in the voicing stack.  When smaller combinations are extracted - trios, duos, quartet - the variety of usage is amazing.  The clarinet is the most chameleon-like in the group in that it tends to blend in the easiest in almost any circumstance.
If one wants to use the extreme registers of the instruments the variety can be even greater.  Horn as soprano 1,  bassoon as soprano, clarinet as bass (chalumeau register, not bass clarinet) for example.
I did not have the musicians double, but options are piccolo, alto flute, English Horn, Bass Clarinet, etc..  Some composers go for the doubling, but I didn't feel it was necessary.  In fact I think the doublings would hamper the group to some degree and I preferred to maximize the usage of the standard instrumentation.
The Scirocco Winds warming up before their recital
February 2, 2009 - Houston, TX
© 2010 Steve D. Matchett


Maturing stages of the musical mind.
1) hear - to perceive or sense sounds
2) listen - to make a conscious effort to hear; attend closely, so as to hear
3) hearken - to give careful attention; listen carefully
I love the word "hearken" because it means that a person is engaged with what they are hearing or listening to, and seek to find meaning in it.  If a person is hearkening to the messages of music, not only are they opening themselves up to the sonic landscape of a piece, but they are understanding the narrative that is being conveyed.  The narrative can be a virtual flow of emotions, a narrative of sonic action.  Hearkening means taking something away with you after the piece is over, and growing in the ability to relate musical works, by both comparisons and contrasts.  A person who hearkens to great music will learn to love and be absorbed by the imaginary soundscape that the composer and performers have created.