Composer, author, lecturer, guitar teacher

Notes from a composer’s journal

Last week I composed a new work for piano and viola. It’s called Three Yeats Poems and is in three sections, and lasts about 15-16 minutes. This is just a first draft. The three poems by W.B.Yeats are I – News for the Delphic Oracle, II – The Wild Swans at Coole, III All Souls Night. This is not a setting of the words, but purely instrumental music.

A couple of interesting points came up during the process. When I started it my intention was to sketch some music for a viola plus string orchestra piece. I chose viola plus piano staves to sketch on so I could focus on the musical ideas without worrying about what to do with five staves of string orchestra (violins I, violins II, violas, cellos, basses). The piano has often been used as a sketch-pad by composers trying out ideas, and I guess this continues to be so even if the piano is a virtual one (on a computer notation system) rather than a physical one. (The computer piano never needs a piano tuner …).

First thing that happened was that about 5 minutes of material in, a melody turned up which simply elbowed my previous structural aims out of the picture. As a consequence I saw that my sketch was going to break into three separate pieces and not be a single span.

The second result came after 6 days, when I had some material for all three parts. I wanted to try arranging the middle section for a small orchestra. The viola melody didn’t sound right on the new instrument I’d planned, and the accompaniment had become sufficiently pianistic that I realised it would take a long time to sort out a way of doing it with a string section. Not having the time to pursue these problems I decided to leave the piece as it started: viola and piano. Maybe I’ll try turning it into a piano quartet or quintet instead. Moral of the story: when sketching on piano beware of many arpeggio figures with the sustain pedal down!

As for the viola plus strings piece, the next step will be to have those six staves open and compose onto them from the start so as to keep the idiom in keeping with strings.

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4 responses

  1. Thanks for sharing the process. As time progresses I see the virtues of the “great” composers shine out so brilliantly when I begin to sketch; for example, Beethoven was able to draw out so much material from so few notes and integrating it all into a whole. He, too, used the piano as the preferred instrument. Schoenberg refers to the central role the original idea of a composition as containing so many seeds for development. An interesting side note comes to mind. Several years ago when composing a piece for 80piece orchestra while at USC film scoring program, I sketched on the computer, it sounded fine, but when I actually got in front of the orchestra to conduct the piece, in front of my peers, etc., I was blown away by the power and force of those simple ideas. I never get those feelings when I compose electronically. That experience taught me a huge lesson: the composer with limited means has to rely more upon his imagination for the final outcome of the piece. I had the same experience when at LSU working on my Masters in music composition under Dinos Constantinides. My “world premieres” were a tremendous experience for me, since to have a live human being perform a piece of yours in an unforgettable experience. I think working with an electronic keyboard does have its drawbacks, but it does provide a great pallet which our famed predecessors had not the pleasure of having.

    Anyway, thank you for sharing and good luck in the final outcome. By the way, thanks for all the great books, I have all of them and use them almost everyday. Clint LeFort

    February 9, 2012 at 12:21 pm

    • Hello Clinton,
      Thanks for your comment. I agree with you – there is much to learn from the greats of composition. I find myself becoming more and more conscious of how important structure is. Coming up with great musical ideas is one thing; extending and developing them across a coherent structure that lasts anything between 5 and 20 minutes at a stretch is another thing altogether …

      February 9, 2012 at 1:00 pm

  2. hbinswanger

    I have lost my CD to Rikky’s book “Melody.” Does anyone know how I can get a substitute (physical CD or downloaded audio file)? (Sorry if this is a duplicate comment.)

    February 9, 2012 at 5:16 pm

    • My publisher doesn’t keep spare copies of the CD – they are only pressed in the same quantity as the books. My suggestion would be to buy a secondhand copy of the book.

      February 18, 2012 at 10:50 am

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