• Sep1Sun

    Inside Composing: part 2

    A look behind the scenes of composing for brass band. September 1, 2019 Marcus Venables
    Filed Under:
    Music & Gospel Arts

    In the last two years, Maple Leaf Brass has debuted seven composers who have been published for the first time. We have seen a general growth of interest in composition, including numerous students at Territorial Music School taking part in composition electives. As well, the music department offers ongoing correspondence and guidance to help new composers improve their compositional technique as they work on writing new music. There is something to be said about the draw to create and the inspiring nature of music. However, when writing, there are a few traps or common areas of error that many young and developing composers may fall into. Let’s consider three of these areas in detail.

    1) Harmonic Function

    What do you want your music to say? How are you going to portray a specific mood or emotion? To some degree, the answers to these questions may be dictated by the song you choose to use. However, the harmony we use can’t just be considered on a chord-by-chord basis. It should be built upon an ebb and flow. The harmony builds tension, creates stress, adds emotion and provides resolution. Unfortunately, it sometimes gets treated as a nuisance that gets in the way of melody and rhythm. I’m not suggesting that university level theory is a requirement for every composer, although it certainly does help! I’m trying to suggest that the harmony needs to be intentional as well as instinctual. We know that the dominant leads to the tonic, but maybe in a certain spot we can take the harmony to the submediant. When I look at a new piece of music, my first reaction doesn’t come from the style, motifs, or level. It always comes from the harmony. Is it structured with purpose? Is it bland? Is it correct? Is it clever? Does it have potential? When you write music, does your harmony do something?

    2) Technical Cover Up

    The music sounds boring and the chords aren’t doing much, so why not add some flourishes. Does this sound familiar? This is what I call the cover up. It’s a way to sort of trick the audience. There is a time and a place for all of those runs and arpeggios, but don’t use that as a tool to survive boredom. Believe it or not, those runs will actually get in the way of developing a great harmonic progression. You cannot write a flashy sixteenth passage without figuring out the harmonic syntax beneath it. Even an unaccompanied and fast moving line has a hidden progression. Be sure to figure out where you are going before jotting down those ego boosters for the solo cornet bench.

    3) Failing to Complete

    I believe the easiest part of writing is actually starting the piece. It all starts with an idea. The original motif or possibilities for an opening cadence are almost endless. What proves to be more difficult is following through on what you have started, fleshing out your ideas, or coming up with a convincing narrative. These are the factors that prove to be more time consuming and difficult. If you do push forward and complete the entire process, the work is still not done. Edits and revisions take time. The end goal should be that you reach a point in your writing where you learn from each and every edit or revision and avoid the same pitfalls in your next piece. But you have to find a balance. You can’t let this stand in the way of trying new things! We will consider this topic in future articles but the main takeaway is that creativity is a process of trial and error that requires taking risks.

    You may be reading this and thinking that these are just my own opinions but let’s consider the stats to back it up. Let’s go back to some of the information received from our composer survey. Seventy-five percent of the composers were surprised by the use of one of their pieces over another. Sometimes this can be a fluke, it’s the only composition people know, or it simply just fits the level of the group. There are many other possibilities. However, we need to finish a project, get it out there, and then start the next project. Failing to complete the piece means that the fluke of someone playing it is impossible. Failing to complete means that there is nothing else for these groups to use in the future. Failing to complete prohibits us from learning what works and what doesn’t work.

    Fifty percent place importance on functionality over quality. I don’t think there is a right or wrong answer here. Harmonic language is still the most important, regardless of whatever else is happening. A major work will be brutal to listen to if it doesn’t generate any harmonic interest. In contrast, a functional song arrangement won’t be appealing if the harmony is lacking. Unless you are writing a beginner level piece for a junior band, there is no reason why we shouldn’t be generating intriguing harmonic progressions that infuse the music with quality and creativity.

    One hundred percent indicate that they are receptive to feedback once the piece has been played and rehearsed. Not only will this help spread the reach of your music, but it will allow you to develop a working relationship with fellow musicians and encourage you to think about why you made specific choices in your music. Was that bar a technical cover up? Was it just a place to fill in the blanks? Or did you really think about the reason for how you crafted that specific bar in your piece? These are all questions to ask yourself that will help you define and develop your compositional voice. Ultimately, unless you are the conductor, performer or audience, at some point we will rely on others to bring the music to life. The conductor has the authority to interpret the music. The performers have to take their part, along with the direction of the conductor, and apply their learned technical achievements to the music. Most importantly, the audience has to feel connected to the music. Composers have all identified that feedback is crucial to success. You may be asking yourself, how can I write in such a way that helps me become conscious of potential feedback even before it occurs? The answer lies in always prompting yourself to ask the important questions. Will the players achieve success with this? Will it make musical sense? Will the music be appealing? Am I being clear with what I want for the sake of the conductor? How can I make this better?

    From this article, I hope you have realized that there are layers of commitment to composition. Not everyone that has the drive or even the ability will write 20 new pieces in a year. Maybe it will be just one. But let’s make that one the best one. Writing music is like a muscle that must be maintained and flexed every once in a while. There’s an opportunity to get into a routine and strengthen or build, but there is also a need to let it rest and recharge. Be sure to check out the next installment in this series of articles as we continue to consider the different aspects of writing music.

    Leave a Comment