September 11, 2013

From Page to Stage

In our last blog entry we talked about musical inspiration — where it comes from and what it can result in. A two-measure phrase and groove had entered my head at that time, and I decided to try to expand it into a new work that could be premiered at a Hamilton College concert on September 6. The two-bar phrase that came to me on my morning walk looked like this as first notated:
It wasn’t much to go on, and the manuscript sat on the piano for a day or two until I had time to look at it and begin the real work of composing. How do you take a promising phrase and turn it into a composition with enough length and musical content to be worthy of a public performance? Finding a form is helpful. Most compositions in the jazz realm are written in a fairly specific form, at least mine have been. I’ve written my share of 12-bar blues, and a number of songs that fit into the 32-bar song form, a template dating back to the 1930’s. It’s a convenient form. An 8-bar A section and a repeat of it, a new 8-bar B section, then followed by a repeat of the initial A section. This magically turns 16 bars of composition into 32. This was the form that seemed to present itself as I worked on expanding the initial idea.
The restrictions in this particular case were considerable. The concert format was for a soloist and accompanist, with a preferred time limit of four to five minutes. This limited instrumentation presented a challenge, because two single note instruments would have to provide melody, harmony and rhythm. To achieve a Latin feel that would set up the melody, I employed percussive effects, the string bassist tapping on his instrument and the saxophonist clicking out a separate rhythm on a maraca tied to his belt. As the composer and saxophonist, I knew there were certain notes I could write for just my left hand on the sax, while I tapped the maraca with my right. In addition, I knew that the bass player could tap on his bass while he plucked his instrument, as long as I wrote the part for an open string. These types of details fit into the realm of knowing orchestral instruments and their capabilities.
The song took form and the 2-bar idea developed into 4, then 8. The melody remained in the saxophone and the bass provided root notes and a generic Latin groove. The three eighth notes at the end of bars 4 and 8 grew in importance as the piece progressed. The 8-bar A section looked like this:
The bridge led me to a distant key, presenting a challenge to return to the original , and I must admit this was one of the more jarring transitions I have written. I refer to this as “the Andrew Lloyd Weber modulation,” which consists of no modulation at all, just an abrupt return from whence you came.
For a number of years now I have composed directly into the Finale musical software program, occasionally going to the piano to check things before I notate them. Finale’s reproduction is fairly realistic, and you get a decent idea of what the piece will sound like. The piece needed some contrast and a bit more length, so a section employing a dramatic tremolo/arco bass sound served as an introduction and ending.
When the piece was 90 percent completed I called the bass player to set up a rehearsal, and tried to put it out of my mind for the time being. Most of the work was done, but the song did not have a title. Some time ago I wrote a separate blog called “Instrumental Song Titles,” and how difficult they can be to think of unless a composition is dedicated to a person or event. While the song had a Latin feel, it did not have any distinct reason for being, nor was it composed with something specific in mind. I could have called it “Walking the Dog,” because the initial melody occurred to me while I was doing just that. I dismissed the idea because (1) it would seem inappropriate included on a program for a classical concert; and (2) Rufus Thomas already wrote “Walking the Dog” some 50 years ago. I wanted this title to have a Latin flavor to it so I decided to take the now-important rhythm — three eighth notes — from the piece and translated it into Spanish. After consulting someone who knew the language and proper grammar, the title became “Las tres corcheas.” I liked it, and I thought it might make people ponder about a hidden meaning in the song, of which there is none.
Due to scheduling issues, our rehearsal became a run through that very afternoon before the performance. I was not concerned. The bassist, Darryl Pugh from Syracuse, is a highly skilled musician, comfortable in classical, jazz and Latin genres.
The piece was well received at the concert and came out sounding very close to the way I envisioned it. The fewer instruments you are using the more likely you are to get the result you heard in your head.
The premier of the piece could very well be its only performance, as often compositions written for specific occasions are played only once. You can take a listen to the piece as an MP3 here, as the Finale program plays it. You will hear a two second gap at 1:48, where the solo sections were inserted during the performance.
For me, inspiration for composing seems to arrive when everything I’ve ever heard, played or previously written collides in my head. If I’m lucky, a new phrase synergistically finds its way out.